Interview: Keith Giffen on the Final Weeks of ‘Countdown to Final Crisis’
With only four issues remaining in Countdown to Final Crisis, the looming end of DC’s year-long, weekly series marks not only the grand finale of a sprawling, epic storyline but also the conclusion of two years of weekly deadlines for industry veteran Keith Giffen.
After serving in the role of "breakdown artist" for the entire run of DC’s first weekly event, 52, Giffen jumped right back into a weekly production schedule last year as the breakdown artist and "story consultant" for Countdown (later renamed Countdown to Final Crisis). Two years and more than 100 issues later, the finish line is finally in sight for Giffen.
I spoke with the prolific creator about the highs, lows and upcoming end of Countdown to Final Crisis, as well as the last two years of weekly deadlines, last-minute changes and prolific output from the creators involved with each weekly series.
[Editor’s Note: For the spoiler-conscious, this interview contains discussion of some events occurring in both this week’s issue and future issues that, although hinted at and likely quite expected at this point in the Countdown storyline, are certainly worth a warning.]
COMICMIX: Keith, last time we spoke, I think you had just turned in the last issue of Countdown, right?
KEITH GIFFEN: Yeah, I had just popped in the final issue. Now, I can put weekly comics behind me for a while.
That was 104 in a row, man. Come on!
CMix: So, how are you feeling now that, for the first time in two years, you don’t have another issue that needs to go out as soon as you turn the last one in?
KG: Well, it wears on you. When I handed in that last issue of Countdown, the next day I was like, "I don’t have to do it anymore. The pressure is off."
It’s kind of nice. I can go back to my regular books now, and I can get back to my regular workload again. In a weird way, just like an abscessed tooth, you kind of miss it. It’s not there, but you’re kind of grateful it’s gone.
CMix: How did Countdown compare to 52?
KG: it’s really a whole different animal. It would be unfair to draw any comparisons between 52 and Countdown. The tone was different, the entire approach was dfifferent. The first time you do it, especially when it unfolds in real time, it’s an accomplishment. You did it!
The second time, you’re kind of expected to do it, because you did it the first time. It’s like a sequel to a movie — it’s not going to be as satisfying as the first time you saw it.
The overall thing is getting it done and putting these issues out. Certainly it wasn’t just me — it was an entire team of people pulling these projects along. Getting it out on time when so many monthly books seem to have trouble hitting the target, to do two years of a weekly and just nail it week after week, there’s a real sense of satisfaction there. Were there certain things I’d go back and redo if I had the chance? Sure. But I can say that about anything I’ve ever done. Hindsight’s always 20/20.
CMix: Was there anything you wanted to do in Countdown but couldn’t fit in due to the time constraints or other factors?
KG: Oh, yeah. We had lots of leftover ideas on 52 and we had lots of leftover ideas on Countdown, as well. I’m not going to go into them here because I never waste an idea, and I don’t want other people to waste the ideas, either. If everyone thought that it was a great idea and it didn’t make it into the series, you can pretty much guarantee that it will pop up somewhere else. Good ideas don’t die easy deaths.
CMix: What were some of the highlights and low points of the project for you? Is there any particular issue in which everyone really shined? What about an issue you’d like to get a do-over on?
KG: I’m not going to pinpoint any single issue, because I don’t want to do a disservice to all of the writers and artists who have been trying to put their best foot forward under the most grueling circumstances. There are certain issues that I look at and say, "Yeah, on all fronts, that’s one where all of the art and the writing really came together and it was perfect," and there are others that I look at and say, "What was I thinking?"
I think it’s just more intense with a weekly book, because the timing is so condensed. I can look over a monthly book that I had a long run on and sort of pick out what didn’t work. It’s sort of softened by time, whereas with a weekly book, when I see something that didn’t work, it was just a little while ago.
CMix: Are you happy with how the stories turned out?
KG: I really don’t think I’m going to be able to sit down and have an honest assessment of 52 or Countdown for a while. Maybe a couple of years from now, I can look back on it — once i’ve put some distance between me and the project. Let me get completely clear of the forest before I comment on the growth of the trees.
CMix: What were your favorite parts of Countdown, Keith? What parts of the story did you enjoy working on the most?
KG: I enjoyed the Darkseid/Jimmy Olsen battle, believe it or not. That was something I really enjoyed.
I really think of my favorite moments as individual events. I really enjoyed working with Scott Kolins again. i really enjoyed the issue when Jim Starlin stepped in and pencilled one.
Come to think of it, I think my favorite two issues of Countdown were probably the two issues that fans are either going to love or hate… or maybe I’ve completely misjudged. But my favorite two issues are the unfolding of The Great Disaster. Those are the ones I had the most fun doing and, out of any issues of Countdown, if I could’ve stepped in and actually written any issue completely and done all of the dialogue, those are the two I would’ve wanted to do.
But when it’s something fans have been waiting for that long, it’s kind of intimidating. Doing it on a weekly book, when the schedule’s getting tight, it gallups past me and makes me think, "Please, when it comes out, let me still think as highly of it as I do now."
When I’m done with these breakdowns, I don’t go back to look at them again. If I went back to look at them again, it would just slow me down. And you cant afford to get slowed down on a weekly book. That window of opportunity to correct little mistakes is really narrow — it’s more like a knothole of opportunity.
CMix: What about your favorite characters? You worked with a pretty wide range of characters from52 to Countdown. Were there any that really grew on you or any that you really grew to dislike?
KG: In 52, I made no secret of the fact that I loved those scenes with Montoya/The Question and Batwoman, and their storyline. I really looked forward to breaking down those pieces. Not to slight any of the other storylines, but I think that was something that really resonated with me — it was something about the Montoya character.
For Countdown? Hmmm… I didn’t like Donna Troy at all. She was supposed to be in 52, but she was voted out by consensus. And Jason Todd, he wasn’t exactly one of my favorites. And everyone knows I hate Karate Kid. One of the reasons I stuck with Countdown was that I’d have a chance to hurt him again!
But the characters I enjoyed in Countdown? I liked playing with the Ray Palmer/Atom character quite a bit, although that was kind of intimidating to have to pick him up after Identity Crisis. That was rough. Some of the Jimmy Olsen stuff was fun, too.
Bob the Monitor was an interesting character, only because I was walking in knowing that Bob was a bad guy.
CMix: Where do you think the peaks and valleys were in the overall stories?
KG: There’s a big difference between a book like 52, where I’m handed the full scripts and I’m breaking them down and helping to smooth things out by trying to distance myself from the project and stay fresh, and Countdown, where I was much closer to the project. it’s really hard for me to be analytical about Countdown, because I did have to get so involved in certain facets of it.
There was a certain point in Countdown where I became more involved in the creative process. Now I’m being asked to turn the mirror on myself way too soon. Right now, if I turn the mirror around, I just see my own haggard features as I figure out how to make a noose.
CMix: Fair enough. On a lighter note, we’ve talked in the past about some of the "Easter Eggs" you included in the breakdowns for 52. Was there anything similar to be found in the Countdown storyboards?
KG: In the breakdowns on 52, I goofed around and did things like dropping in a Marvel character in the breakdowns. On 52, it came to a head when, as a goof, the Teen Titans showed up with Zatara, this new kid. I didn’t know what his costume looked like, so I laid him out in drag. I put him in Zatanna’s fishnet stockings, and the artist pencilled it that way.
So here I am, and I I know that these guys are as under the gun as I am, and they’re taking elements of the breakdowns that I thought were kind of tongue-in-cheek and they’re accepting it as gospel. So i had to pull back on that type of stuff.
But as far as the little nods to the readers and the wink-wink, nudge-nudge bits, there wasn’t a lot of time for that. If there was any of that going on, it wasn’t my doing. I was just trying to move things along to the best of my abilioty and keep the machine fed.
CMix: So, after two years and 104 issues, would you consider jumping into another weekly anytime soon? What if DC called you up tomorrow and asked you to start on another weekly project this month?
KG: At this point, and the way I’m feeling right now, I would probably decline as politely as I could under the circumstances — which would probably include some pretty rough language. But you never say never in this business. Ask me again a year from now and it might be a different answer. If circumstances arose wherein DC felt that I could be of use to another weekly book, or that my stepping in might help expedite the process, I’d probably have to give it some thought. But if you’re asking me if I want another wekly book, I really, really dont.
Two years? Let somebody else have that fun.
It’s an accomplishment that I’m very proud of, but it’s not something I’d recommend to anyone.
CMix: Looking back on the last few years, 52 and Countdown weren’t the only projects you were juggling. You’ve probably had a hand in the creative process for at least 150-200 issues in that period. Seriously, Keith — how do you do it?
KG: I’ve always said that if you have an obsessive-compulsive disorder, it might as well apply to your work. And I am kind of obsessive about my work. These days, with the way I’m feeling, the hardest thing was not feeling well enough to sit down and do a couple of hours work.
[Editor’s Note: Keith was getting over a touch of the flu when we spoke.]
It’s like, "I have the time, I may as well do the work."
People look at my workload and think, "Oh my God!" But I don’t work 20 hours a day, 7 days a week. I work 8 hours a day, and I still have my evenings and, nine times out of ten, I’m still taking the weekends off. But when I sit down to do the work, I sit down to do the work. I’ve been at it for so long, it’s natural.
CMix: I imagine so. For you, having been around the industry for so long, "getting down to business" is exactly that, right? You sit down, start working and it’s that easy?
KG: Ideas come easy to me. If I’m working on a story, I’m always jotting down notes for other stories I’m also working on. I’m never at a loss for ideas. Early on, you have to learn your craft, because there are going to be days when inspiration is hard to find and you have to get the job done.
The least you owe the readers out there who are putting down their money is a job that has a certain level of craft to it. It may not be the most inspired story of all time, but at least it’s well told. They can’t all be Galactus.
CMix: You’ve been instrumental in both of these projects that lead out of and into Crisis events. Are you going to have any hand in Final Crisis?
KG: Not at all. I’m going to be able to settle down and enjoy Final Crisis like a fan. That’s Grant Morrison’s baby. He’s running with it.
There were certain things that were requested — they were sort of, "If you could cover this in Countdown" or "If you could maneuver certain characters to this point, you’ll make my life easier" requests. But no, I have no idea what’s going on in Final Crisis. You’ve probably seen more than I have about Final Crisis. And at this point, I kind of prefer it that way.
CMix: Now that you finally have some breathing room, are you finally going to take a vacation?
KG: Between 52 and Annihilation and Countdown and this Dreamwar thing for Wildstorm, I think I might take a little block of time and say, "Look – let’s just focus on some books that aren’t big events." Right now, Ambush Bug is the book I run to at the end of the day to decompress.
CMix: Well, Keith, if anyone deserves some decompression time, it’s you. Thanks for talking with me, now get back to work!
Countdown to Final Crisis #4 hits shelves this week, while the first issue of Keith Giffen’s next project, DC/Wildstorm: Dreamwar, hits shelves April 16. ComicMix readers might also be interested in our recent interview with Giffen about Reign in Hell, his DC miniseries scheduled for a June release.