William Messner-Loebs is a name that most old school Comic Book fans are probably familiar with. He is a writer and artist that started in the industry in the 80s and made a name for himself with great runs in titles such as Flash and Wonder Woman, plus a very substantial career with his creator-owned project, Journey: The Adventures of Wolverine MacAlistaire, and the licensed property, Jonny Quest, that he did back in the 80s.
Among his greatest achievements we have the creations of characters such as the Amazon Artemis (the second Wonder Woman) and Linda Park (the love interest of the second Flash, Wally West), expanding and improving the Character of Wally West, writing one of the best Flash stories of all time (Nobody Dies), making the Pied Piper one of the first openly gay characters in comics (long before that was the hip thing to do), writing the stories of the 90s hit Image Comic series, Sam Kieth’s The Maxx, and many other things.
From the turn of the century onwards, Bill’s career and personal life have taken a lot of hits, but his love for comics has always been immense and he has always given his best to provide quality work, even to this day when he is already in his seventies. A top professional of the comic Book industry, my partner here at Animated Apparel Company, Russell Crooms, did an interview with him through the phone with the questions that I wrote (due to logistics, I couldn’t do it) and I think he did a phenomenal job in a conversation that was four hours-long, so you can tell they hit it off.
It’s also worth pointing out that it was done a few weeks ago, in case some comments may confuse you. I hope you enjoy it.
Note: Due to the length of the interview, we decided to let you know beforehand that Bill is open to offering his services as both an artist and writer, so you can contact him through [email protected] and [email protected], if interested. You can also contact his good friend, Mike Jones, through his Facebook page to discuss possible work.
Journey #2 by Messner-Loebs. Copyright by Messner-Loebs.
Russell Crooms: "It’s great to have you here, Bill. It’s truly an honor. How are things going with you and your family during this virus situation? Has this affected your work in a big way?"
William Messner-Loeb: "Well, I’m just sort of getting restarted on what we laughingly refer to as my career. But the problem is I don’t really know if it’s still late. What I am currently doing is that I have been provisionally hired as an Editor-in-Chief for a small comic book company here, but hoping to be a medium-sized comic book company. And our idea is that we're having various older comic book creators who are not in huge demand, like Mike Grell (legendary Green Arrow artist and writer), among them. And several of our local Michigan people are linked with this. And the idea was they wanted someone to sort of coordinate people, and just when that was going to get started then this thing (the Coronavirus) happens and it’s been extremely difficult to keep in contact with anybody.
I'm supposed to have a couple of new projects, and I’ve been working with those and scraping them up off the floor and getting to send them off to people. But as I’m sure you’re aware, being homebound and so forth doesn’t actually give you as much free time as you think it will. So yeah, I’m doing that. I also work with another, small comic book company here. And in that case, what we’re doing is simply publishing people who volunteer to be published. Mike Jones also runs the show of YEET (Mike’s YouTube channel). So that’s what we’re doing. So that’s pretty much what I’ve been doing or not doing for a couple of months. I was working also as a delivery person for Panera Bread. I have sciatica in my leg. And so doing a lot of walking and especially walking up and down stairs became increasingly difficult. So my manager at Panera and I had a mutual thing that I would not work there anymore. And that was just about like two days before the Coronavirus hit.
So, you know, I get up every day and I take my temperature because I am in that range as people say. You know, I’m in the same age as most of the people who are running for president at this point. I'm in my 70s and that's somewhat worrisome, but I occasionally go out and get takeout for us. And that’s my major thing. Mike Jones is coordinating people who want to get sketches from me. So I’ve been also doing that."
"Okay. Alright. Now, Bill, how did you get into comics? How did you actually get into this industry?"
"Well, the medium short answer to that is I’ve always been interested in comics. When I graduated from college and I started looking around for a career, I was doing art fairs here in Michigan. And then I took some of those art fairs drawings to various, comic conventions there. Well, we actually had one comic book convention, which was I think twice a year, which was the… Oh, this is embarrassing (laughs). That name has gone away from me. But it was founded by the same guy that founded the San Diego Comicon.
And it's the Triple Fanfare (the name of the comic book convention). There we go. The Triple Fanfare was the thing around here. And it was either the first or second comic book convention that was founded in the country, depending on if you live in San Diego or in Michigan. I brought that and then I ran into a couple of people who were actually starting to found a comic book company here. And there were various things that happened but I did eventually start working in a studio with a comic book company called Power Comics. And we were funded mostly by optimism and sketchy money. But I met several people there who really influenced me, like Mike Gustovich. Mike and I actually went to New York together and we talked to people. As I continued to go to comic book conventions, I went to a comic book convention in London, Ontario, and I met Dave and Dan. They asked me if I’d be interested in producing some sort of short piece. And I did that. It eventually turned into Journey: The Adventures of Wolverine MacAlistaire, which I did for 27 issues, something like that."
Journey issue #1, written and drawn by Messner-Loebs. Copyright by Messner-Loebs.
And people liked that writing. So then I was asked to write an adaptation of Jonny Quest and then from there, Flash. I had several times when I did the more conventional route of going to New York and talking to people. But, as I’m sure everyone will tell you, that’s an extremely difficult thing to do."
"Another question I have for you is, and I'm going to get more into your career as well, who were the writers, artists, and comics that had influenced you the most?"
"Hmm. Well, I think it’s pretty obvious that Will Eisner is a huge influence on me. I remember I was working for a small art supply company after college. And I picked up a Fable watercolor brush. I started dipping it into ink because I had read some of what you did. And as soon as I did that, I said “Oh, that’s how you get that line that they have in comics”.
"Wow. Okay. That brush line."
"Yeah. And I'm sort of blundered into making all these things. When I was in college, I was a history major and my mother always said “I don’t understand, you want to be a writer and an artist and you never take any writing or art courses in college”. And it was mostly because, personally, I didn’t understand the difference between fine art and commercial art. When I was in college, the big push was for abstract arts. And so I didn’t really think I had any talent for that. And in writing, it was mostly, again, kind of abstract poetry. And I was advised by friends of mine who were taking those courses that they wished they hadn’t taken them and I shouldn't take them either and always being influenced, I didn’t. Then, I think the second biggest influence on me when I look back on it was probably was Alan Moore. Because, you know, when I was coming in, he was doing all the groundbreaking superhero work on Swamp Thing.
I think in the sort of things that he was doing, rethinking all the characters that he was working on. He said in one of his pieces talking about Flash that he was a man who ran so fast that his life was simply a collection of statues. So he was doing that and I, just like everybody else, was very influenced by that sort of rethinking that he was doing. And eventually, I ended up writing Flash. So, you take what you’re given because that was the other thing. I thought it was good that he would take characters from Superman’s past like Mister Mxyzptlk. Endless transformations into various creatures and just fold them in, rethink them, and fold them into the saga rather than just trying to start from scratch, although I’m not actually averse to starting from scratch, either. I’ve never really had a chance to do it. I ended up sort of being the second generation of Wonder Woman writers. I was the second generation of Flash writers and I was the second generation of Dr. Fate writers. So, you know, I think it was a good time to break in."
"You have worked in several roles throughout your career, but mostly as an artist and writer. Do you feel more like an artist or a writer?"
"Well, Dave Sim was actually a big influence on me as well because of the work that he was doing in Cerebus. And he once said that he thought that he was basically a writer and had to turn himself into an artist. I had always thought of myself that way. When I was just out of college, I would spend a week writing samples and then I would send those off to people and they would be sent back and then I would spend another week doing arts and then I would send those off so then they would get sent back to me (laughs).
Mmm, so I sort of did both, but I think of myself as basically a writer who also does art. And I find it endlessly amusing that most of my later career has been doing drawings and commissions from people with things like Wonder Woman and The Maxx, but other people actually drew them (in his runs). And I think people don't always realize that I was not the artist on Wonder Woman or The Maxx. And so let's not tell them (laughs)."
Wasteland drawn by Messner-Loebs.
"I think so many people are inspired by comic books, especially a lot of us growing up, and we are really inspired by the stories behind it as well. And we get so attached to those characters, and we attach to the stories and get attached to really know their lives. So when you find out that someone actually created that issue, people start to get amazed for a moment with that too. Because it's almost, from our side, like a little surreal because, you know, we go through this and you're reading these things, but most of the time you don't necessarily think about someone actually creating this. This was an idea that someone pointed it out. Someone had to write it, someone had to draw it, so when you finally get to meet someone that is doing that, you’re just almost in shock and awe."
"Well, I know, it’s very, very sweet. Very sincere.
I knew a young man that was a huge Superman fan. And he was constantly asking me details about Superman’s life and why he did this and that. Most of the time I would answer his question by explaining why the editor had to do that in order to make him coherent with the Justice League and so forth. And he desperately wanted Superman to be a Christian. He will say “Great, but he was a baby when he left Krypton. And so when he was raised in Kansas, then surely he became a Christian”. Then I said “Well, we’ve always sort of assumed that he was Jewish. Because, of course, the people that actually created Superman were Jewish”. That’s why he’s Kal-El, which is one of the Hebrew names of the voice of God. And there was this long pause while he digested that and said “I’m sure he’s a Christian” (laughs).
I ended up giving answers to questions that they don’t really want. So, yes, it’s a huge influence. And you know, for a while there was a big push within the companies. They thought they were going to take both Marvel and DC, get together and copyright the term superhero, for example, because that seemed like a good idea. And then they were thinking of copywriting what we call the Superman gesture, which is where he opens his shirt and shows his costume and to a degree that was in the company. I thought it would be an interesting thing to have Flash do that. And I was told no. The rich end of DC, which is the Superman end, would go psychotic if we do that. No one is allowed in the company to do that gesture except Superman. Now, that seems to have eased up a lot.
I used to laugh about the fact that down in New York, where DC was located at that time, you had one big building where you had the editors and the writers and the artists, and then you had another big building just as large next to it where they kept the lawyers. And that was sort of true. DC has always been very interested in law and in copyright and all of that and Marvel because it was a smaller company, that sort of grew in patches. It took a while for them to catch up. But of course, now they are connected to Disney, which is the Colossus which straddles the universe. And everyone has lawyered up at this point. But whenever we, for a long time, the belief was that you couldn’t, that they couldn’t just have a contract with a person because they were a corporation, then they had to have another corporation to the degree. And that was the reason you couldn't have long-term contracts with anybody. Any freelancers. To the degree that when they desperately wanted to have a contract with Frank Miller and Alan Moore, they gave them money to set up a corporation. So they did believe that. But all of a sudden, right in the middle of when I was doing Epicurus the Sage, I got a call and they were going to put me on contract. And my God, this was so huge. I called up the Comics Journal and actually gave them a scoop. I worked for a short time for the Comics Journal too. After Journey, I left Hanna-Barbera and joined Fantagraphics for several years. So I did have contacts there, as it were. I had people. So that's how that happened."
"You’re mostly known for your Flash and Wonder Woman runs, but what can you tell our readers about your first gigs in the industry?"
"Well, my first gig was, again, the Power Comics in East Lansing, Michigan, which lasted for half a year. Although, interestingly enough, we got a submission from Elf Quest. We actually had a chance to publish Elf Quest before anybody did. That was, in a lot of ways, unfortunate. The sort of people that were running the company were both naive and not entirely honest. And for a short period of time, we had the original art for the first issue of Elf Quest, and Richard Pini showed up and took it back. But by that time, the company had gone bankrupt.
I was allegedly the editor of our fantasy division, which was Elf Quest, but I didn't know anything about it. I did not realize that I was being talked about in that way. So that was sort of a horrifying situation altogether. But anyway, fortunately, Richard Pini has forgiven me for that. But anyway, that was sort of the very early part of this. I think that my career really started with Journey in any real way and that was the first time that I was ever noticed for anything. I won the coveted Five Grandmothers Award from Fantagraphics when they reviewed it; that the idea was that a real artist should be willing to run over five grandmothers to achieve his goal (laughs). But that wasn’t really what they were doing. They were really just coming up with a thing to rate your work. It was inspired by a William Faulkner quote that you should be able to run over your own grandmother in order to make a great work of art."
Linda Park, Wally West’s girlfriend/wife was created by Messner-Loebs. Copyright by DC Comics.
"All right. The next question we have is, what were the first lessons that you learned in your early days working on comics?"
"Ah, well, the first lesson I learned was from Josef Rubinstein. I was surprised to find out he was as young as he was because I heard his name for a long time, but he had started inking at about 16, and I'd seen his name forever in comics. And he still is an enormously great inker. When he inks things, they grow like neon.
Joe actually showed me some work he was doing at a convention and I thought that real comic book artists will only work in brush. You learned brush control and all of that, which of course it's true. I did brush exercises. Mike Gustovich taught me brush exercises and I would wake up every morning and do them about two hours every morning before I would really get up. But I was amazed to find out that Joe Rubinstein would do all of his original inkings in pen and then he would go in and do the brushwork. And this was a big interest of mine. In fact, that’s what I did on a lot of Journey using paragraph 10, which actually is a very flat line. What they call a fountain pen. But you only have to have two or three lines done with a brush. And the brush line is so seductive that it will make everything that you’ve done look like a brush, even if you did it in marker or anything else. So that was one of the first lessons that I learned.
The other thing was something that Joe told me about how everybody needs an editor. And I heard that throughout my entire career, I think. Have you ever heard the saying that if all you have is a hammer, everything in life looks like a nail? Well, everybody has it and it’s handy to have editors for coordination and other things. But I actually think it’s not necessary. I think it's sort of sad because I’ve just been hired as an editor. I've been hired as an Editor-in-Chief.
But, for example, when you get to a certain point, there are writer-artists who will then hire an editor to give them an extra pair of eyes. But it doesn’t necessarily need an editor who is your boss. Especially if you're working on a deadline, and almost all of us work on a deadline, at some point, you don’t have the time. I mean, if you’re a Stephen King, for example, he would write the first draft and then he’ll put it aside for three weeks and then look at it with fresh eyes. Well, that’s impossible if you’re doing three pages a day, which is roughly what the industry does to enable you to make a living. And actually now that the rates are going down so much, I'm sure that you have to be able to write six or seven pages a day and maybe draw, maybe not."
Journey by Messner-Loebs. Copyright by Messner-Loebs.
"Looking back now, what do you think of the first comics that you did, such as the Johnny Quest run for Comico or Journey: The Adventures of Wolverine MacAlistaire? Any series, in particular, that means a lot to you?"
"Hmm, well, certainly Journey. One of the things that kept me sane. Because I was still doing Journey on and off almost up to the point when I started doing Wonder Woman. I was doing Journey through that period. And if you have something like that, which is actually yours, you don't get so invested in the company-owned projects, because that drives you crazy. It sort of drove me crazy too. And I knew I’d have bizarre editorial things that would come down and I knew of things that would come down from marketing, for example. It throws everything that you’ve been doing on your book. So it’s hard not to go nuts. And a lot of the things that you read about, except for things that writers and artists have done in mainstream comics, you know, fighting with the companies and doing all of that. And almost none of it ever really works out for them because you’re fighting against things that are established for nearly a hundred years at this point. They’re very rich and you walk into the court and everybody puts down their money, and you see how much money weighs the most.
So people go nuts and they do and say unfortunate things or even fortunate things. And so, for me, having Journey back there, which was actually mine and I could do what I wanted with it was keeping me sane. And I guess we’re neat. We’re actually reprinting some of Journey and then people still ask me to draw the characters from Journey. So, you know, that is certainly the thing closest to my heart.
Jonny Quest is very close to my heart too because, even though it was a licensed character, I got a lot of freedom, both from my editors at Comico and Hanna-Barbera. At one point I was doing a very obscure take on Jonny Quest, where I had actually had all the characters undercover and it was a satire on the Andy Hardy series, something which again my readership probably had never even heard of.
I heard through the grapevine that our contact at Hanna-Barbera said “Okay, well, I don't understand anything in this first issue, but we trust you”. So, Hanna-Barbera was a pretty nice company to work for too, all things considered. And I have actually two of those stories, which I really like. I’ve done several public readings of those, where they projected the pages on the screen, and then I read them. And these issues tell the backstory at how Hadji and Jade and all those characters came to be a part of the Jonny Quest universe. Because of my father… they always say “Well, you know, he's not a rocket scientist”, but my father was a rocket planner, as it turns out. He helped design the Atlas and worked in the space program out in the whirlwind. And so I kind of knew how a scientist really worked and what was really like, so it helped me in talking about a bitten quest.
Again, Jonny Quest is very close to my heart and I enjoy it, and certainly, the DC work is good, although frankly, everybody knows me from Wonder Woman and the Flash. Well, actually, I have these bizarre overlapping fandoms. And because I have the independent comic people remember me from Journey, and then the DC people remember me from that and also from Thor. The most common and the most interest I get is from The Maxx. And to the degree that I've actually had to sit down and learn how to draw Maxx in doodles. Those are the commissions that I get right now."
"You eventually took over The Flash title at DC. How did you get that job?"
"I always say that every good thing that has ever happened to me has happened because of a comic book convention. I used to believe when I was a kid growing up and wanted desperately to draw comics that you drew all the panels separately on eight and a half by 11 sheets of paper. And that was how I was doing it. Of course, nothing looked right and nothing worked. So I had to go to a comic book convention to see people working on what an original comic book looked like. And the fact that many of them were drawn with a blue pencil. I mean, all of this, I learned at comic book conventions, watching people work. It's one of the reasons that places that have comic book conventions are the ones where most of the talent comes out of. That's the reason we have so much talent coming out of Detroit. That’s where people used to be able to show their portfolios. The people at comic book conventions. The editors would go out and do that. And that just has dropped away as we have more and more people wanting to get into comics, which I think is sad. I think it’s good to be able to.
When people come up to me and want me to look at their portfolios, I won't read scripts because that only gets you into trouble. I've never actually had somebody come up to me and said “Oh, you read my script and therefore this script you did for Flash was something that you stole from me”, but the other people have had that happen and I think a lot of people don't realize how alike we all are and how much alike superhero scripts actually are (laughs). So I'm pretty eager to look at people’s work when they show it to me and I give them what little advice I can give them. Most of the advice is, as somebody said about writing, you have to write a thousand pages of shit before you pumped out the shit and you can actually write something that's worthwhile (laughs). I'm not sure that that's true, but it's kind of true."
Jonny Quest issue #7, written by Messner-Loebs."Yeah. I mean, I would certainly agree with that from a creative standpoint. Because I've never actually written comics, but for a while, I did study scriptwriting before I started building a website and the big thing I wanted to do is I wanted to write films. So I wrote some short films. Of course none of them I would say were popular (laughs). And one thing I learned in the writing process was that I had to just write, even if it was just absolutely terrible, and will never see the light of day. I just had to get it out. And then once I kind of got it out, as I got into a rhythm, then I was able to continue."
"Sadly, that’s all the actual advice that I can give to people: if you want to draw, you just have to draw over and over and over and over and over again. And you have to write over and over and over and over again. It’s a really boring thing."
"Right. I have actually a really close friend of mine that's an artist and people are always coming to him and saying “You know, wow, as you draw so well. You know, that's great that you have that talent”. And he's like “Yeah, but I have to draw a lot”. They may come back and say “Well, it's great. You know, it's amazing that you have this talent and that you have this natural ability”. And he's like “Yeah, but I do have to draw a lot” (laughs)."
"Yeah, and that’s a really common theme. That you do have to have some kind of natural ability. But for the most part, you also have to work at it and, in fact, it can go away. When I was doing mostly writing through the eighties and the nineties, and I stopped doing Journey, I began to lose my ability to do full figures, for example. I lost my ability, assuming I ever had it, to draw realistically. And one of the nice things that I've been doing for years now is that I've been able to once again get that back. But if you're not drawing every day, you don't have that ability to just draw the full figures and every position always that way.
I've told this story before and I will make this short: My friends and I were all writing and we were going to be signing at a comic convention or at a store signing. So we were in the back and we were doing art and we all noticed that because I only have the one arm, which I think you probably know.
We realized, well we didn't have to worry about that cause we were all left-handed. Well, they always say left-handed people are more creative and so forth. We talked about that until we were bored with it. And then we talked about a lot of the things and this kid comes in and the two things with comic book fans: they're either very subservient or they're very aggressive and because they want to show you that they're not impressed. And so this kid comes in and he's saying “How do I get into comics? How do I get into comics?” Everybody believes there's a trick and it doesn't matter what you tell them. So he came up to Don Simpson and he says that you have to draw every day, all this boring stuff. And the kid’s like “Really, how do you get into comics?” And he's getting more and more upset and angrier and angrier. And finally, Don says “Well, you have to be left-handed”. And he said “Really?” Yeah, you have to be left-handed. He says “You see Randy Zimmerman over there? he's left-handed. See Mike Gustovich over there? He's left-handed. And of course, you could tell this because we had all the bottles of water on the left side”. And so he goes around the table and then everybody slowly turns and looks at me. And I said, “Well, I was right-handed, but I wanted to be in comics” (laughs). That kid is still running."
Messner-Loebs’ Flash run was key for Wally West’s development. Copyright by DC Comics.
"Let’s keep going (laughs) Back in those days, Wally West was just coming into his own as Barry Allen’s successor. So how was the experience of developing that character?"
"Oh, well, of course, I had a pretty good start. Mike Baron had done a really nice job with Wally because before that he'd been in the Teen Titans, and for the first, I think it was for the first year,. Mike Baron was working on that and he came up with the idea, or somebody came up with the idea, of Wally having to eat all the time. And then he gave him this really rocky relationship with his parents: his mother was an alcoholic and an incredible shrew and his father was some sort of minor criminal and then Wally would win the lottery so he’s not only a superhero, but he’s rich as a rock star and he drops the secret identity. Well, these are all great things to play with.
Now, I was a little upset because when I was given that run to go off, in the last issue he loses all of his money. Oh, yes, and he lost his super-speed and I was like “Oh, okay. Thank you, Mike” (laughs).
So everything I had been thinking about after that point, it’s just thrown into the hopper. But he’d been sleeping with airline stewardesses mostly, apparently, which is, based on what little experience I have with rock stars, one of the things that you do. Mike has made him very, very cold and it seemed very cool. What I realized was that he was very young and he was suffering a degree of imposter syndrome where he wasn't really Barry Allen, you know, he was Wally West. And so I felt like I could certainly play with it because I had a little of this with my father, who was incredibly successful. Not exactly well-known because there’s no fandom for optical engineers. But I did understand what a little bit of what one would be going through. And so when I was developing him, you know, one of the things was, he ended up having two 18th birthdays: the one that Mike did at the beginning of his run and maybe before that and then mine. And I took him back to being 18 again. And to me, that made it everything that he was doing and everything that he was feeling a lot more explicable. And he was also kind of a young Republican, so they played with that at the time.
He had lost his speed inexplicably, but there were the Russian speedsters, and there was somebody called Flash McGee, who was another scientist who got super speed from seeking various kinds of drugs. And then there was an actual drug that the Japanese had to use that gave them super speed but also killed them. And so, essentially, everybody was faster than Wally, who was supposed to be the fastest man alive. That sort of gave me the first year of playing around with this. So I can run all these characters through the entire universe when I eventually got his speed back for him, first by turning him into the porcupine man. And also I did one of the things my editor really liked: Wally gets an invitation to a meeting of the Rogues, which is taking place at a holiday inn and it's just a little mini invitation. And all these different rogues gallery characters were there. And in the end, Captain Cold, who was kind of a leader of the gang said “You know, I finally realized that we could have taken over the world: you have magicians here, you have people with enormous powers, people who can turn control light, who can control heat. And we spend all of our time robbing jewelry stores because we were competing with Flash and that was Barry’s genius.”
Wally West as the Porcupine Man by Messner Loebs. Copyright by DC Comics.
"And when I did that, my editor called up and she said: “Yes, we hired the right guy to do this”. That was very pleasing to me. You sort of look at where Wally was and what he was doing. Since he was more of a Republican, I gave him a kind of an old, crotchety Democrat. He was living down the hall from him, whose name was Mason Trollbridge, and I named him after a character in a soap opera that my wife was watching. He was this old guy, but it turns out that he was the sidekick of a character called the Clipper, who was the most disgusting antihero that you could possibly imagine. He would catch kernels and he would clip off their ears so that everybody would know who they were. Like the Shadow on steroids. So once I had those things in place, suddenly it was pretty easy to write."
"What do you think makes Wally different from Barry?"
"I have never actually read the new series where Mark Waid brought Barry back. I never actually read any of the stories after I was leaving. You are just giving yourself more stuff than you can actually deal with. Because you can't do anything about it. It gives you new ideas, but where do you take those? And I just didn't want to be one of those old, crotchety comic book guys who go on the Comics Journal and criticize the people that were writing after me. So I never did. Mark Waid would occasionally actually call me because we were such good friends and he would run ideas by me and that was always good.
I found out about both the Speed Force, which I think is the greatest idea in the history of Flash, actually. Because we have like nineteen different Flashes and just in the DC universe. They were all characters who were various kinds of Flash characters. They all had different origins. They were all created in a different way. How could that possibly be true? And they all end up with exactly the same powers. And the Speed Force actually made that all possible. And so I thought that was brilliant.
So we would talk a little bit and I was going back. There are other things. I was just coming up with different ideas and then towards the end of the run because I wasn't sure given that you always know that your run is going to end at some point. And what I wanted to do was create a gay character because at that point it was just horrible, horrible gay characters. They had Bruce Banner being abused by homosexuals in a restroom. And you had other kinds of characters. And they came up with the idea of having a really flamboyantly, endlessly flamboyantly gay character called Extraño. And the editor for that character said that now that he has superpowers, he is cured. And you go “Oh God, this guy has just given himself years’ worth of health”.
So I wanted to do that. I thought, you know, I am a little older than everybody else in the field at that point. And I'm married and a lot of the guys were living in New York or rooming with other comic book writers because that's what you had to do to live in New York. But to suddenly be creating, they could never create a sympathetic character. And those two few guys who actually were gay, they certainly couldn't create a gay character. It’s hard to imagine how different the world was back then. And so I thought I could try this, I could actually do this, but I have to do it with a preexisting character because I'm not going to have time to introduce a character and then have him be gay and having him be a sympathetic character. I was going through all these different characters that I had available to me, and none of them really seem to be just right.
Messner-Loebs made the Pied Piper one of the first openly gay characters in comics. Copyright by DC Comics.
So I thought about the Pied Piper, who I had now made into a kind of a Robin Hood character and he was somebody who was sort of a contemporary of Barry’s and a good advisor to Wally. And so that was what he was for the first couple of years of the script and having him be an ex super villain was something that Wally kind of had to deal with. Someone who's actually, in a way, better than I am in terms of helping before and all that and yet he’s also a supervillain and he’s a friend. So I thought these were all things that worked very well. And then comes the issue where I actually made him gay. A couple of years later when I was doing The Maxx and I hit gigantic lines, it was the first time in my career I’d actually had lines, where are the people running the convention would come to me and say “Bill, your line is interfering with the rest of the convention”. How cool is that?
But, what I would have to do if I was going to go to the bathroom because I would stand up and the people would groan due to the fact they've been in this line for so long, is that I would pick out somebody towards the end of the line and you say “You're going to be the end of the line. And then when you get here, you can tell people that the line is going to be ending.” So I picked out this guy. I’m calling him a kid, but he was probably in his late twenties. He was what looks like a really nice guy that wasn't going to kill me. And so I waited. I said “Can you be the end of the line? Just tell me and I'll sign whatever books you have when I get back because I have to go to the bathroom”. And he said “Sir, I don't actually have any books for you to sign. I just wanted to shake your hand and thank you for the Pied Piper”. So I was able to do all those things for Flash.
Yeah, going back to the original question… (laughs) He was just a different guy. New and younger and probably a lot more insecure. And, of course, he also worked out (laughs). I remember something: it used to be that when you would read the DC comics, they would have these little things about “How do you draw your character?” And so Carmine Infantino or whoever was writing for Carmine Infantino at the time was showing how he would draw Flash and they said he has very slender powerful runners’ muscles. He isn't bulky like Batman or Superman. And so I thought it was amusing that when Butch Guice was drawing him, he had huge muscles and so I had to come up with a reason for that and I figured that Wally was just into bodybuilding, so he didn't need to be. Even though we didn't know it at the time, he was empowered by the Speed Force."
"One of the artists you worked a lot with back in those days was Greg LaRocque. How was the experience of working with him in the book?"
"(laughs) It was great. I’d say that first Greg, actually, I'm not sure if he came from the Philippines or if his parents came from there, and it was about the third or fourth thing that we were working on and that was working great. And he went back to the Philippines, I think to get in touch with his roots. He probably had relatives back there and it made perfect sense. The Philippines that are a long ways away, but you know, you have vacation, unless you're a comic book freelancer. And when he came there, this huge volcano exploded and erupted in the Philippines and he couldn't leave. There was so much smoke and ash and the planes could not fly. And he was trapped in the Philippines for, I think, at least two years.
Flash Vol. 2 issue #54 – written by Messner-Loebs and drawn by LaRocque. Copyright by DC Comics.
Well, at that point he got engaged and then he got married and then he had children in the Philippines. And so, the Philippines are far enough away that you only have about one business hour that you can talk to somebody on the phone. So I sent all my scripts to DC and they would send them off to the Philippines because God knows they should use their business class to send stuff. While I was working, I worked all the time with what's called Marvel Style, or if you're working for DC, it's called plot script. So basically I would do a paragraph or a couple of paragraphs per page describing the actions and whatever motivations there were and so forth. And then Greg draws that up and then they send back the pencils to me then I do the balloons and the captions and send those back and then everything gets inked and lettered.
Honestly, sometimes I didn't actually remember what I had written in terms of my original plot. So I would have to kind of look it up and sometimes Greg would move things around a little bit. At least, I think he did. But to me, I didn't mind that because I thought that Greg was probably more of our audience because he was ten years younger at that point than I was. And so it was a true collaboration and it looked really good. I really liked it. And it was certainly faster because pretty soon I was writing four or five things and trying to use Journey. So plot script is always faster and we got along well. We didn’t talk ever (laughs) but I think it was all great. He did the design on the Piper. He did the design on Mason Trollbridge. And a couple of the other characters I came up with and I thought they looked great. I thought it was really good. And then, a couple of years ago, they did the retro issues at BG where you would do one old story and then you would do a new story if there's something you've always wanted to do. And I really enjoyed that a lot. I thought that was a great story and I was so pleased to see that Greg had not lost it, they found him and he hadn’t lost any of his chops. In fact, he was growing better than ever. And so that was a great experience. One of these days I'm going to actually have to meet him at a convention. I assume that he isn't trapped in the Philippines anymore (laughs) and probably doesn't have small children anymore, so it would cool to see him in the comic book conventions and have him meet his ancient collaborators."
"You’re obviously an artist yourself. Did that give you a better understanding of what Greg needed to do his best work?"
"I think so, yes. I know that I've been told that by several people who I was writing for that I seem to have that ability. I had a friend of mine who was an artist and was working with another friend of mine who is a writer and he said: “I love working with him, but I remember he gave me a splash page and he describes as obviously a crime scene and he's describing intricately all the police capes that are up and all the buildings in detail”. And then he says that “You know, around the corner, there’s a car parked in the back of the alley by these buildings and laying on the floor, hiding from the police”. And he said, “We had to have a discussion about that because there was no conceivable way I could draw that”. And you know, there’s also a thing that people who are writers, and especially people who are writing pros, and they will say “Wally comes in and he looks shocked and then jumps back into a chair”. Well, no, that's three panels, that isn't one panel. Right. And so, I was always aware of not wanting to do that. And I did a little of it myself.
But one of the reasons that I like working with other artists was that they could draw things that I couldn't draw and will be incredibly laborious for me, whereas a lot of guys spend their entire lives just drawing superhero action, which is difficult for me. It was actually sort of a relief when I would work with somebody who’s that talented.
So, anyway, that’s that. That gave me sort of a leg up understanding of what an artist really needed and what an artist doesn’t need. You don't want to over-describe everything, right. As I say, most guys have spent their lives drawing superhero fights. You don’t really have to describe every blow and every punch for these guys. You just say “Okay, we're going to have a big fight now and, in the end, this guy wins or that guy wins”. And maybe in the middle, you have to show something like a belt buckle. Because, what’s the point? What's the point of spending all this time doing it? John Byrne once said that he was the most talented artist, which I think is true, of having two universes crashed together and I'm the most talented at having two guys talking quietly for an hour in the library. That’s true. Of course, we also all know that having the guy that can write about two universes crashing together is probably going to be making bigger money than the guy here in the library. But still, I saw that as a compliment."
"What are you most proud of in your Flash run?"
"Certainly, I’m extremely proud of having one of the first sympathetic gay characters in comics in the Piper. And to the degree that when Marvel, with great fanfare, had Iceman discovered to be gay many years later, there was a lot of media interest in that, but they had no way of talking about it. Nobody actually thought it through. Everybody wanted to talk about gay characters in comics over to DC. They talk about this because we’d had a couple of years to decide what we were willing to say.
I think the other thing that I was most proud of was when they did the Flash TV show (the one in the early 90s) they asked me, the assistant editor and the main Editor-in-Chief of comics, Brian Augustine and Mike Gold, to go to Paramount to watch the filming of an episode. And so while we were there, I had been feeling that we had had two and three-episode runs. And there’s a tendency if you’ve noticed, for superheroes not to be, oddly enough, deeply involved in the actions of their own books. They watch the villains do terrible things and then they go and they beat them up. And this is heroism. I had wanted to do something that was in one issue and to actually express my notion of what heroism was.
Because I had several people comment, both in-person and as reviewers, that I didn't seem to understand heroism which, as I say, was the hero beating up the villain. I thought that maybe there was a more nuanced way of looking at that. And so while I was on the plane, I thought about what Wally would do. Because at that point we hadn’t established that he could actually fly by vibrating his legs fast the way Barry could. And I thought this would be good, because what if he falls out of a plane? What if he decides to go out of a plane because the stewardess has been sucked out of the plane?
So I came up with a story of some supervillains, who inadvertently blow up the side of a plane and then Flash has to decide whether or not he’s going to jump out of this plane, not knowing if he can actually vibrate his legs fast enough to be able to cover all the way to the ground. And in the course of that, he catches up to the stewardess who is falling and he has to eat peanuts out of her stewardess bag to get enough energy to be able to keep supporting both of them in the air. And they finally sort of came sort of crashing through the trees. The punch line of that issue was “Nobody dies on my watch”. And I thought that was a good way of explaining what his point of view was on this more than just trying to be Barry and more than just fighting the Rogues. So that was fun. I was very proud of that issue and in fact, when I was first out of work, several people were calling me on the internet or talking to me on the internet and saying that that was their favorite issue too. So that made me feel good."
"And this question actually asks about that issue. You wrote one of the best Flash stories in issue #54, Nobody Dies. It kind of ties, right? (laughs)."
"Well, yes, it does (laughs)."
"I didn't know you had the superpower to predict the future too so… (laughs)."
"Yes, all editors do (laughs). Yeah, I'm trying to think. Well, and that was all tied-in to that whole long, really interesting weekend of finding out how a television show was filmed too. so there were a whole bunch of things that happened as a result of that."
"You were essential in developing Wally’s character. To a lot of readers, the Wally West they know and love started with your work in that title, Kevin included. That wasn't really a question. That was more of just a statement. Okay, now we go to the next one."
"But it’s a really nice statement."
Flash Vol. 2 issue #52 – Nobody dies, written by Messner-Loebs and drawn by Greg LaRocque. Copyright by DC Comics.
"I wanted to ask you this question: What makes a hero, according to you?"
"That ability to make a choice, I think. It doesn’t really revolve around. I had an issue of Journey where MacAlistaire is out on a frozen lake with an old friend of his and the friend breaks through the lake and MacAlistaire runs over there but he can’t see his friend at the bottom of this lake. This happens to be a really cold day and he looks down and he can see his friend who is now drifted with the lake tides and he can see him pressed up against the ice, but he can’t get out. And McAllister has to choose whether it’s right to save him or not. And he tries to break through with his knife and tries to push through, but there’s no way to do that. So the only thing he can do is go back to where his friend broke in and swim through this freezing water and then get down and hope that the lake is shallow enough, which turns out to be shallow enough, that he can get his legs underneath him and the two of them push up and break through the ice that way. And I had several comments that this was a much more heroic stance than just beating up bank robbers.
There was a guy who I think was in Afghanistan, a soldier in Afghanistan, and they made a movie about this, where he was trapped behind enemy lines and had to work his way free. And he was doing press afterward and people were like “How did you find the strength to be a hero?” And he says “I didn’t know that I was being a hero when you’re only saving your own life”. It seems to me like I should have been saving another person if I was actually being heroic.
And so there’s that aspect to it too. It isn’t just getting drafted into either the army or into the Justice League or into the Avengers, and that makes you a hero. It’s not about a position that you can put on your resume. It’s making a choice. Like people now, who are going into work, in the hospitals, every day knowing that they’re rolling the dice every time they go in and other people too, although, interestingly enough, I was just reading an article by a guy who works in a grocery store and he said “I’m not sure that you’re calling me a hero is anything other than you making yourselves feel good”. So it's a sort of a complicated stance, I think."
"A period of your career that is not mentioned a lot is the time you spent working as a writer on Doctor Fate in the early 90s. What can you tell us about that run?"
"Well, I had several different jobs in comics at that point and I was vaguely aware they had gotten J. M. DeMatteis, who I believe was the writer on that. And it was a deliberate restructuring of Doctor Fate where both Kent Nelson and Inza Cramer Nelson were both in Doctor Fate at that point. They sort of had a dialogue going back and forth. And when they asked me if I would like to take this over now that the miniseries was done, they asked me to pretty much change everything (laughs).
As a matter of fact, they decided they didn't want to have the true characters in there anymore. You know, been there, done that. Now I could just have Inza being Doctor Fate, so, okay, I'll do that. But what do you do with Kent Nelson, then? And I made him kind of a demented house husband."
Messner-Loebs’s Doctor Fate run didn’t get much credit. Copyright by DC Comics.
"But what I was sort of aiming at with that was to talk about, you know, you have so many characters that are so powerful and yet you can’t have them do anything that will really influence the real world. What I always heard when I was growing up was “Well, you can’t have Superman cure cancer because you just can't. We still have cancer”. And so there was this whole thing of Superman would never be able to actually influence anything that was going to
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