Interview: Peter David on Stephen King, ‘X-Factor’ and ‘Dark Tower’
Peter David has had many successes during his long career as a writer. From his beginnings as an assistant in the sales department at Marvel Comics, through his character-redefining run on The Incredible Hulk, to his bestselling Star Trek novels, David’s talent, wit and style continue to serve him, and his readers, very well.
More recently, he’s taken on the task of helping to bring Stephen King’s The Dark Tower to the pages of comics and jumped back into the X-Universe by writing the re-booted X-Factor title for Marvel. ComixMix recently caught up with the multi-talented author to get the latest on X-Factor, how he works with artists and the legendary Stephen King, and what makes a good story.
COMICMIX: Peter, thanks for taking the time to talk. Getting right to it, take us back a bit — how did you get started writing comics?
PETER DAVID: Well, I was working in the sales dedepartment at Marvel Comics under Carol Kalish and writing was something I was doing on the side. Long story short, I started pitching ideas around at Marvel and wound up impressing Jim Owsley, the then-editor of Spider-Man, and was assigned to Spectacular Spider Man as a writer.
I did that for about a year or a year-and-a-half. After that, I was offered the Incredible Hulk, which I, of course, took on. During that time, I also started to send out inquires to other publishers like DC and asked if they would be interested in hiring me.
They said they would so I decided to become a full-time writer and never looked back. That was in 1986 or 1987, something like that.
CMix: Was there one particular moment when you realized you could do it for a living?
PD: People coming to me and asking me to work for them kinda tipped me off. It was primarily when I approached DC to see if they would be interested in me as a writer and they said they were.
If they had said no, that might have been it. I might still be in the sales department at Marvel.
CMix: Did working at Marvel at the time help you make the transition to full-time writer? Did it help to already have your "foot in the door"?
PD: It was both a plus and a minus. The fact that I was there already meant that people knew who I was and gave me an entry into the business.
But there was also a great deal of hostility at the time between the editorial side and the sales and promotional side, and a lot of it was directed to my then-boss.
The fact that her assistant was writing stories certainly got a few noses out of joint. There were some editors that wouldn’t even give me the time of day who might have for a complete stranger.
CMix: That isn’t the case today, though? Editorial and sales get along prety well now, you would imagine?
PD: Well, I was the first person to make the transition from the sales side to editorial. After that, others did so, but I was the first so it was difficult at times.
CMix: So you’re a trailblazer?
PD: So it would seem.
CMix: You’ve written about and talked bout this some before but to you, what makes a great story?
PD: What makes a great story? A great story is one where the reader is able to connect with it in one way, shape or form. Something that strikes some sort of emotional resonance with the audience and makes it memorable and makes them think about all manner of things after they’ve closed the page and that stays with them.
Perhaps it even has an impact on them that makes them do something in their lives Preferably something positive. I would hate for someone to read one of my stories and go out and do something bad.
CMix: When you sit down to write a story do you think about character first or plot or . . .?
PD: Character and story are inextricably linked. You can have the most innovative and clever plot in the world, but if people don’t care about the characters then ultimately its not going to mean anything, because you’re not going to give the reader any stake in what happens to your heroes.
On the other hand, you can have very compelling characters, but if nothing interesting happens to them you have a very flat story. What you really want is both. Ideally, you want to have strong characters and a strong plot, and that will get you a strong final product.
CMix: And in comics, the art makes a big difference as well, I’m sure…
PD: Unquestionably. Art will make or break the story. You can have the best story in the world with the most interesting characters, but if you have a lousy artist, that will drag the story down.
By the same token, you can have a mearly adequate story and a great artist will elevate it and make you look better.
CMix: As a writer, how do you work with artists?
PD: I write what’s called "full script" which is essentially a panel by panel breakdown describing exactly what’s happening. I also put in all the dialog so that the artist has a guide for everyting including expressions, etc.
CMix: What about when you deal with big-name artists? Do you give them more control over the finished product?
PD: I do the same thing. It’s really the best way for writers to have more control over their stories — to pace it out and structure it and not dump so much on the artist and make them do all the work.
I used to write in what’s called "Marvel Style," which is an entire story written in present tense. I would throw in dialog here and there, but I had the tendency to overplot.
It wasn’t really fair to the artist becuase I would try to cram all this stuff in and they would have to pick and choose what to put in because they couldn’t put in everyting.
Unfortunately, some of the things they left out were almost always something I had put in that was setting up something else for the next issue.
CMix: After writing for Spider-Man and Hulk titles, how did you get involved with the X-Men and X-Factor?
PD: Well, my first involvement with the X-Men — and my continued involvement — is a result of X-Factor. That came about because the editor of the book came to me and asked me to take over X-Factor. Of course, I said, "Sure!" I would love to write X-Factor with Scott, Jean and all the other original X-Men characters. That would be great.
Unfortunately, Marvel then told me these characters were not going to be in the book and we’re going to have an all-new team. I said, "We are?" And they told me I was going to have characters like Multiple Man and Guido, and I asked, "Guido?" Basically, we were going from a book featuring the most popular X-characters of all time, besides Wolverine, to a book with characters that nobody was asking to see on a monthly basis.
It was not exacly what I was hoping for when I signed on. But then I thought "Heck, it’s an X-book, and perhaps I can do something with these characters, especially as they don’t really have as much baggage and development to them." I also thought that I might be able to introduce some characters. So, I took on the book. Over time I’ve grown to love these characters.
CMix: You’ve been on X-Factor how long now?
PD: Well, issue number 28 has hit the stands so its been a little over two years. Of course, if you count the times I was on it before, when I left the book, then it got cancelled, then rebooted, its really been about 13 years.
CMix: What are your plans for X-Factor?
PD: Well, I can’t really tell you. I mean i know, obviously. The problem is that if I tell you everything that’s happening then you won’t have to read it. I can tell you, we are having new characters show up.
Darwin and Longshot are going to show up. There’s going to be a Layla Miller one-shot that’s going to show what’s happened to her since she’s been away.
And, of course, a Quicksilver one-shot which I’m really excited about. We’ve basically dragged Quicksilver down about as far as he can go, and now the one-shot is going to follow what happened to him now that he’s at absolute rock-bottom.
CMix: How far ahead do you have it plotted?
PD: I have it through issue #38 and a general idea beyond that.
CMix: Has the new version been successful thus far?
PD: Yeah, and it will be interesting to see if there’s any sales bump now that the "Messiah Complex" storyline is over.
CMix: Given that you seem to be doing well with X-Factor, any desire to work on other X-books?
PD: No, not really. Well, if they offered me one I would take them up on it, but I don’t covet it in any particular way. I’m pretty happy with my own little corner of the X-Universe.
CMix: Is there any comic book character or title you would love to write?
PD: Doc Savage. I love Doc Savage. Also, my other dream project would be Tarzan vs. the Phantom. Can you imagine how fun that would be?
CMix: Any writers whose work you really like to read and follow?
PD: Sure, I like Neil Gaiman, Harlan Ellison and Robert Parker, who writes the Spenser novels. Whenever a new Spenser novel comes out I usually drop everyting and start reading it.
CMIx: How about comics writers?
PD: Well, Neil, like I said. I also like Terrry Moore, Jeff Smith, Dan Slott, Mark Guggenheim. All great writers.
CMix: When you take over a title like X-Factor, do you go back and read every prior issue to get the complete picture of what’s happened before?
PD: Sometimes. I try to go back and read everyting that’s manageable. For example, with She-Hulk. On the other hand, am I going to go back and read every X-Men comic ever written when I take over X-Factor?
The answer is no. If you tried that, you would just go insane because there’s just so much of it.
CMix: Did you read many comics as a kid? Did you ever think this is what you would be doing later in life?
PD: Yes, I read a lot of them when I was younger and no, it never occurred to me that I could make a living doing it.
CMix: What did you think you would be doing?
PD: Well, I wanted to be a writer, but I thought I would be a reporter or something. The idea that I would get paid to pull things whole cloth out of my head simply never occurred to me.
CMix: You seem to be keeping pretty busy. What all are you writing at the moment?
PD: I’m writing X-Factor, She-Hulk, Fallen Angel, The Dark Tower and there’s going to be a new Frontier comic book that’s coming out, so I’m pretty excited about that.
CMix: Speaking of Dark Tower, when you work with someone like Stephen King, do you actually sit down and talk with him and figure things out? How does it work?
PD: I don’t talk with him much at all, actually.
CMix: You’ve at least met him?
PD: Sure. But the story was all thought out and plotted long before I came aboard. Robin Furth, a longtime associate of Stephen King, worked with Stephen to lay out the story that would constitute the 30 issues of the Dark Tower.
That’s the intended length overall. I work mostly with Robin, but all my dialogue goes to Stephen for the final edit, which is the way you would want it.
CMix: He doesn’t call you up late at night to talk about your dialogue?
PD: God, no. I don’t think I would be able to get up in the morning after that. Basically, I write the script and then it goes to everyone who needs to see it during the approval process — to the editors, Robin, Stephen, and then back to me.
CMix: In its final form?
CMix: How did you get involved with the Dark Tower series?
PD: Basically, I got a phone call from Joe Quesada and he said Marvel was going forward with Dark Tower. He told me I had the requisite comic book experience and literary experience and that I would be the perfect guy for the job.
CMix: And you jumped at it?
PD: Of course. What, are you kidding me?
CMix: Where do I sign?
CMix: Any thoughts about writing other things besides comics? How about going back to television or into movies?
PD: Sure. I would love to. If nothing else, the money is fantastic. But its tricky to write movies or television if you live on the East Coast.
CMix: Speaking of television, do all the writers coming to comics from television bother you?
PD: No, I think that’s fine. What I do have a problem with is TV writers who come to comics and don’t feel that it’s worth their full attention.
For example, if a TV writer signs on for a six-issue limited series, does the first two issues and then can’t be bothered to finish because other things have come up, that bothers me because it just seems to be unfair.
CMix: Sounds like you might have someone specific in mind?
PD: I have nobody specific in mind. Absolutely nobody. But anyone who comes over to the comics side of the street who turns out quality material in a timely fashion I don’t mind at all. My problem is with people who don’t treat it seriously.
The bottom line is that comics cost so much that people have to weigh and consider what they are going to commit their hard-earned money to. If you have someone who has decided to spend money on the first issue or two of a specific comic and then the story never concludes because the writer didn’t honor their commitment, I think that’s unfair to the audience. Absolutely unfair.
CMix: Talking about cost for a minute. Comics seem to have really gotten expensive in the last 10 years. Any thoughts on why that happened?
PD: If nothing else, the price of oil has tripled in the last 10 years. Printing ink, which is based on petroleum, is more expensive. The cost of paper has gone up, too. Fuel for the transportation of comics, also. It’s all gotten more expensive to make, so it’s more expensive to buy.
There may come a time when comics are solely distributed on the Internet because it’s just too much money to print them.
CMix: How would you feel if comics were solely available online?
PD: I’m of two minds on that. I like the idea that the comics are accessible to a wider audience and a new readership online. On the other hand, I feel really bad for the retailers who have comic books in backstock.
To a certain extent, there wil always be something like pride of ownership. I think people will still want printed back issues because they want to collect them and read them. So printed comics, at least for those people, should still be around for quite awhile. At least I hope so.
CMix: Peter, thanks very much for talking with me.
PD: Sure. Thank you.
The second issue of Dark Tower: The Long Road Home is on shelves now, with the third issue hitting shelves May 7. X-Factor #30 is scheduled for an April 16 release, while She-Hulk #28 will arrive in stores on April 23.
You can find out more about Peter David and his work at his official website, peterdavid.net.