Ed Catto’s Conversation with Steven Grant
As part of my ongoing series exploring today’s creators’ reactions to their comic creations’ successful crossovers into other media, this week I reached out to Steven Grant. His impressive career includes reviving Marvel’s The Punisher, creating characters like Whisper and writing the long running comics industry column, Permanent Damage.
Steven Grant: Getting a film made from a comic is generally a much longer and more arduous process than most people seem to think. I wrote 2 Guns somewhere between 1998 and 2001, and I had the idea for it much earlier than that. I’d tried selling it for years to various comics publishers, but selling a straight crime comic with no other genre aspirations is a very difficult thing. Finally I had a lull in my schedule and just didn’t want to let go of the notion, so I wrote it anyway. It took a long time. Still couldn’t sell it.
Finally, around 2006, Ross Richie, who I’d known for years, launched Boom! Studios, and he asked if he could publish it, though he couldn’t pay me for it at the time. I wasn’t doing anything else with it, so I said sure. I wanted to see it in print. It was published in 2007. This was right at the time Hollywood started paying a lot of attention to anything published in comics, and Hollywood was somewhat more open to the material – once it had seen print. Prior to that, I’d never been able to rouse any Hollywood interest in the story either, and I had tried – than comics was.
I wasn’t actively involved in any of this, but Ross kept me regularly apprised. Interest grew, studios got involved. I’m told there was something of a bidding war between Fox Atomic – I think it was Fox Atomic, it was one of the Fox sub-brands of the day – and Universal that Universal won, then the person who was involved in that at Fox ended up at Universal so everyone was happy. But even something like that doesn’t guarantee a movie.
A Hollywood deal is basically an unsecured promissory note. Putting a movie together these days is a complicated game requiring the right assemblage of what are now called “elements”: concept, a good production company (established track record preferred), a script by preferably a studio-approved screenwriter that’s good and interesting enough to attract actors with a reputation for “opening” a film (i.e. selling a lot of tickets the first weekend).
Prior to founding Boom! Ross had spent several years working in Hollywood and studying the mechanics, so with some help he was able to navigate the waters. Even at that, the script, cast and crew went through several iterations, and the studio came close to dropping the project a couple of times for Hollywood reasons that had nothing to do with the project itself. Things are always touch and go in Hollywood, even after filming starts.
I think ultimately that 2 Guns got made – and I’m not trying to diminish the many people who worked diligently throughout, like Adam Siegel and Marc Platt of the Marc Platt Co., our production company, who like Ross were also key and ceaseless champions of the project – came down to Mark Wahlberg, who we were lucky enough to land in one of the key roles and who made it his mission to get the film made, bringing in both additional financing when some of our financing fell through (also an incredibly common occurrence in Hollywood) and the wonderful Baltasar Kormákur when the previous director bailed. Baltasar brought such a great visual and stylistic tone to the film. It finally filmed in 2012, four years after the “bidding war,” and hit theaters a little more than a year after that. Trust me, if you’re invested in a film project based on your project, invest in a lot of Maalox because it’s a very bumpy road, and the road to 2 Guns was smoother than a lot of them.
EC: When you saw the movie, were you happy the finished product?
SG: I love the film, but why wouldn’t I? From the beginning, Ross, Adam and screenwriter Blake Masters, who’s a great guy, by the way, were determined to stick as close spiritually to the material as possible. There were changes of course, but you can do so much more in a film than you can on the comics page that I’d’ve been pretty disappointed if they’d stuck strictly to what’s in the book. I do think they kept everything that was important in and to the story. Blake in particular (and Baltasar later) picked up on 2 Guns being a very deadpan comedy. That’s how I always thought of it. Ross and I would have long arguments about that, but I wrote it so of course I was right. I think Blake did a wonderful job. Like I said, I love the film, and considering how many comics guys crab about what Hollywood did to their work, I can’t tell you how happy I am to be able to say that. I didn’t see the film until the premiere, and was terrified I’d have to lie my ass off about liking it afterwards, but thankfully it never came to that. I not only love the film and still find it tremendously watchable, I like their ending better than mine.
SG: I didn’t create X. For several years, Dark Horse had been quietly developing a superhero universe concept in house, and X was one of their linchpin characters. What happened was a guy named Jonathan Peterson was an editor at DC and asked me to write some Deathstroke issues for him, then I started doing other work for him as well. DC was big into “reimagining” old characters, and they had one called Americommando in the ‘40s that I thought was both one of the greatest and worst names in the history of comics, so I created a political thriller concept around it that was probably a bit more left-wing than DC would’ve been comfortable with.
Then Jonathan left and, as is often the case, the projects he’d been setting up, including several of mine, evaporated. I retooled the concept, retitled it Patriot X and pitched it to Dark Horse, which had recently picked up the Badlands project I’d started at Vortex Comics before they hit the skids. Mike Richardson really liked the Patriot X concept, but asked if I could name it something else because they had this character X they were doing for their superhero universe. So I retitled that project Enemy, then Mike asked me to write X as well.
EC: I always remember X being called “the Batman from Hell.” Was that a fair assessment?
SG: Sort of. I didn’t create X but I did kind of recreate it. Their original concept for the character was – and this is badly bowdlerizing it into convenient shorthand – Batman dressed as a Mexican wrestler. I tuned him up into the relentless, fixated psychopath of the first X series. I don’t recall whether the “Zorro” gimmick – one strike as a warning, the second strike (completing the X) as death sentence – originated with me or with Mike, Randy Stradley and Chris Warner, the original architects of the character. Anyway, yes, Batman was key to their conceptualization of the character, but I tried my best to keep specific parallels to Batman beyond the unavoidable out of it.
EC: At one point it looked like X was headed to the Fox Network for a TV series. Can you fill us in on what happened and what where your reactions to that then?
SG: If X was ever a Fox pilot, I never heard about it. They were trying to get it done as a film for a while that I wrote a very bad screenplay for (I really didn’t know what I was doing at the time) that was quickly trashed. You might be thinking of Enemy. David Goyer and Columbia approached Dark Horse about getting the rights for a potential TV series after the book came out. I think it might’ve been David’s first producing job, whereas previously he’d just been a screenwriter. I could be misremembering. Mike was involved too as an executive producer, since he’d already had The Mask as a TV series. They pitched it to Fox, which paid for the pilot. I’ve seen it; I’ve got a copy around here someplace I’m not supposed to have. It’s okay. I’m not sure what happened. I know it was on Fox’s schedule for at least a few days prior to them announcing the schedule, but when they announced it wasn’t. I’ve heard various explanations from different people. It basically boils down to “It’s Hollywood.” Things are go, then they’re suddenly not go. Nothing’s real until it’s real.
Of course, I was thrilled they wanted to make a series. I had nothing more I especially wanted to do with the character. It was one of the first times I thought completely in terms of the story rather than a franchise, so a TV show meant I could make lots of money from it and they’d be the ones worrying about a franchise.
I doubt I’d’ve been very involved in it. Network TV didn’t pay much upfront then – not sure what the terms are these days but I doubt they’ve changed much – then you get a little chunk of change for every episode that airs (with some restrictions I forget), but as creator you don’t make a lot of money until the show goes into syndication, meaning it had to stick around for five to seven years, which are slightly better odds than winning the lottery, but not by a lot. But I would’ve liked to have seen it on TV in any case.
EC: You also created the Marvel super heroine, Mockingbird. What’s the ‘secret origin’ behind her creation?
SG: That was one of my early on things, when I first arrived at Marvel. When you go to a company like Marvel, everything’s niched. It’s very difficult to find something to put your stamp on. I wanted my own characters to play with, and to do that I had to create them. Mark Gruenwald, who I quickly became friends with because we both originated in Wisconsin, was assistant editor of Marvel Team-Up at the time – that book jumped back and forth between editors like crazy, if I remember correctly – got me assigned a bunch of fill-in issues. Marvel traditionally struggled with deadline problems, so they regularly assigned fill-in issues. I couldn’t get a regular book there but fill-ins kept me alive and taught me versatility, if nothing else.
Mark and I concocted a mini-series within Marvel Team-Up (which largely specialized in isolated stories) set in Los Angeles, and to wrap up that arc. Influenced by the mid-‘70s House investigations of illegal activities by the CIA, I’d pushed several times without success for a Nick Fury Vs. SHIELD idea, and wanted to incorporate that in a story suggesting SHIELD might not be quite the good guys they’d been made out to be. Despite my own failure, this obviously wormed its way into the creative psyche up there, as Nick Fury Vs. SHIELD was done some time after I was mostly divorced from the company.
I’d run across the Huntress character who’d briefly appeared in a Marvel magazine, but by then DC had a character named The Huntress, so Mark and I rechristened her Mockingbird and I retooled her shtick into something I could work with. The main response was fan outrage that Marvel Team-Up had debuted a character rather than team Spider-Man up with an existing one.
SG: I’ve only seen the first couple episodes she was in – I have the rest on DVR but haven’t had time to watch – but loved her first appearance. Adrienne Palicki works fine in the part, and I thought the shtick was great, very much in keeping with the espionage angle I always wanted for her that Marvel had mostly abandoned. I take it all as vindication, especially if ABC puts her in her own series, which I understand is still a strong possibility.
A funny thing: when I created Mockingbird, I came up with the interlocking staves as her key weapons that could be used in various ways: individually as two-fisted clubs, as climbing picks, locked together as a vaulting pole, etc. I can’t swear by it but don’t recall that being a thing before her.
Now Mark, at heart, was always a DC Comics fan first, and had this dream of creating a Marvel Comics analog of The Justice League. In that scenario, he envisioned Mockingbird as Marvel’s Black Canary, and hooked her up with Hawkeye (Marvel’s Green Arrow) at the first opportunity. I don’t especially like the whole concept of analogue characters (re: X) and tried to keep away from it. So a TV version of the Black Canary shows up on the second season of Arrow, and what do I see? Her key weapons are interlock staves that can be used in various ways: individually as two-fisted clubs, etc… They lifted Mockingbird’s bit and gave it to the Black Canary. Full circle.
EC: Gerry Conway has detailed his frustrations with the corporate policies dictating recognition and compensation for characters he created for DC Comics. Can you reveal your own experiences, specifically as they relate to the Mockingbird character?
SG: They were nice enough to start crediting me on every episode she’s in, though they kindly don’t mention what anyone’s credited for. I haven’t seen any checks yet. Those are my experiences so far. We’ll see what happens. But I don’t question that Marvel/Disney own the character. I’m not sure yet what their policy on these things is.
EC: Do you feel today’s creators are better prepared to deal with creation of their characters and their possible success in other media?
SG: Probably not, unless they’ve had a lot of personal experience. I’ve noticed by and large comics talent all think they’ll be the exceptions, and don’t seem to get what a minefield media is. It can be navigated but in general it’s all hard choices and risk, and most don’t understand the process and have wildly unrealistic expectations to both extremes.
I’m not suggesting people should start out cynical – that’s as good a way to kill of good opportunities as any – but it pays to educate yourself on the risks and pitfalls, and find out how things are really done rather than swallow the snake oil usually peddled as “how Hollywood [or anything, really] works.” A good education in the workings of whatever field and realistic expectations are the best shields against disappointment and bitterness anyone can get, and the best ways to increase the odds of success.
EC: Great insights and stories. Thanks for your time, Steven.