Looking at Keith Giffen's work load the last few years, it's hard to believe he's been part of the comic book industry since 1975. There are very few people who've been in any business for more than four decades that are still working steadily as today.
But his workload is as busy today as it's probably ever been, from drawing — and writing — stories for the upcoming Kamandi Challenge to working on monthly books like Blue Beetle and Scooby Apocalypse (the latter with his frequent collaborator, J.M. DeMatteis).
In person, Giffen's gray hair shows his age, and at his very few recent comic book convention appearances, his well-timed quips and short, gruff answers on creator panels sometimes make him seem like the industry's version of Statler and Waldorf, the old guys in the balcony on the Muppets.
But get him alone, talking one-on-one, and Giffen is filled with knowledge — and hilarious, often self-deprecating stories — about the comic book industry both past and present.
For any long-time comic book fan, Giffen is well known as the artist on an acclaimed run in the '80s on Legion of Super-Heroes — working with another still-working legend, Paul Levitz. But the artist, who later made the transition to writing, is also acclaimed for his run with his co-writer DeMatteis and artist Kevin Maguire on Justice League in the '90s.
He's also credited as one of the key players in DC's ground-breaking weekly series 52, for which he provided layouts. And at Marvel, he crafted the resurgence of Marvel's cosmic characters during the Annihilation event — and the later Star-Lord series that set-up the modern Guardians of the Galaxy (including a character he co-created back in the day: Rocket Raccoon).
Perhaps his greatest accomplishment, though, has been the huge variety of work for which he's credited, from adapting the manga classic Battle Royale to drawing storyboards for beloved animated series like Ed, Edd 'n' Eddie, to writing the introduction of the modern Jaime Reyes version of Blue Beetle.
A few years ago, Giffen told Newsarama readers that he had actually died — and was brought back to life — back in 2012. But after a tough recovery, he returned to comic books and seems to be going as strong as ever.
In a multipart interview — because, who could cover four decades in one sitting? — Newsarama spoke to Giffen about his life Behind the Page, beginning with his first memories of comic books, his big break into comic books, and how he landed on the Legion of Super-Heroes.
Newsarama: Keith, why, when you were young, did you want to get into comic books? What piqued your interest?
Keith Giffen: My mother used to do – she was a seamstress. She'd do it for various people. And there was one woman who was there, and I don't know how she got the stuff, but I assume she worked at the place where they just destroyed comic books. You know? Where they sent the comics back to pulp them or whatever?
She would always bring over a little handful of comic books with the top half cut off. You know? When they used to cut off the top half for credit? And the title was gone.
So half the time, when I was reading comics, I didn't even know what the title was.
But I started reading them, and I started to become aware of the fact that they were in the store. And I became fixated with them. I became fixated with that type of storytelling.
Nrama: How old were you at the time?
Giffen: Oh, about 8, when she started bringing them over regularly.
I was about 9 when I decided, this is what I'm going to do.
I mean, I was aware of comic books before that. You know, when you were a little kid, you'd get the Donald Duck books and stuff like that. But these — when she was bringing these over, I remember distinctly that it was my first exposure to Marvel. It was a lot of the monster books — Tales to Astonish, Tales of Suspense. And a couple of the really early superhero books.
I was fascinated by them. And from there, I started purchasing comic books whenever I could. And that started a life-long love the genre.
I had favorite characters, but it was actually the art form that just fascinated me.
Nrama: You said you decided that's what you wanted to do for a living. But you decided to be an artist, right?
Nrama: So had you been interested in artwork before that?
Giffen: Yeah, I'd always drawn. I always doodled. But the comic books really locked it into my head. And then I aimed for that particular kind of art and storytelling.
I've always said, my getting into comics was just everything lining up perfectly.
Nrama: So what did you do to get into comic books?
Giffen: It's really weird, because I did everything wrong. Everything wrong. I was working as a hazardous material handler.
Nrama: What an unusual job.
Giffen: You have no idea!
But I had a week's vacation, so I put together a portfolio, and I went into New York, and I was going to go to the lesser companies. I wasn't arrogant enough to think I'd walk into Marvel or DC.
Back then, we had a few of these smaller companies. And I contacted one. And the woman was very nice, the receptionist. "Oh, come! Bring it over! Oh yes, they'll be proud to look at it! Oh, by the way, we're going out of business next week."
And I thought, well, I'm here in New York, so screw it. Screw it. So I went to Marvel. I thought, let's get turned down by the big boys.
The Marvel receptionist took my portfolio and said, "OK, fine. I'll show this to Johnny." And she just slid it in behind her desk. And as I left, I thought, well, it'll never get in. I'll come back tomorrow, and she'll hand it to me and go, no thank you.
The next day, I thought, you know what? I'll give it another day, figuring, that'll get it in to Johnny.
So I go back the next day — two days after I dropped it off — and the receptionist just started yelling at me. She was livid.
It turned out that Ed Hannigan was doing a back-up in one of the Marvel black and white magazines called The Sword In the Star, and couldn't do it, for whatever reason. I don't know what it was. But couldn't do it.
And my portfolio showed up, and they brought it back to Johnny, and Bill Mantlo saw it. And he says, OK, let's use him. And they tried to contact me. And me being the genius that I am, I dropped off my portfolio with my name on it, but no contact information, no address, nothing.
So I was just grabbed, thrown in with Johnny. And walked out of there with The Sword In the Star.
Nrama: And is "Johnny" who I think it is?
Giffen: John Romita.
Nrama: Oh my gosh. Wow.
Giffen: Yeah, it was weird. I was thrown in — and all these names I'm aware of. And I got the job.
Nrama: We've talked before about your creation of Rocket Raccoon, which you described as "I just drew a raccoon" — a declaration I thought was hilarious. But what else marked your early years in comic books?
Giffen: What marked them was that I made all kinds of mistakes. I stayed in comics for about two years, between DC and Marvel. But I did everything wrong. Blew myself out of the business. Wound up working down in South Jersey for about a year selling Kirby vacuum cleaners door to door.
Nrama: What did you do wrong?
Giffen: Oh, name it. Name it.
I would miss the deadline, lie my ass off — it was horrifying. It was the single most unprofessional display you've ever seen in your life.
I remember having an argument with Paul Levitz where he just looked right in my eyes and went, "You'll never work in this business again."
Nrama: Wow. In the '70s? When you were new?
Giffen: Yes, but I deserved it! I really deserved it.
Think of the worst deadline killer artist you've ever seen — I was worse. It was horrifying. I was completely immature.
Nrama: So what brought you back after being a vacuum salesman?
Giffen: When I was dating my wife — we were dating for about four or five months before she even realized I could draw. And I told her the story, and how I blew myself out of business, and I was going to do stuff.
At that point, I had moved back to north Jersey. I was working at Dictograph, making collection calls on alarm systems.
And I go over to see her one time, and she says, you've got an appointment to see Joe Orlando tomorrow morning.
And I went, "what?"
She had just taken it to herself, seeing what I drew, called up Joe Orlando, talked to him, and made an appointment for me. And I went in to Joe Orlando the next morning. And basically, I was told, you really screwed up the first time, so you are on probation. You know?
"We like what you do. We'll give you the work. But you screw up once, you are out the door."
Nrama: So you got a second chance.
Giffen: I got a second chance. Joe Orlando brought me in to Dick Giordano and Robin Snyder, and they started me off with stories for, like, the little DC horror books. Ghosts and Tales of the Unexpected. And from there, I just accelerated.
I made my deadlines. I was trying to be really conscientious.
I got the Doctor Fate back-up.
And then when the Legion of Super-Heroes opened up, Paul, who had literally told me, "You'll never work in this business again," was actually kind enough to realize I'd been trying my best to do it right, and gave me a shot on it. From then on, I think people know. From then on, I've stuck in comics.
But yeah, my first run through with comics — woo hoo hoo hoo. Yeah. I wouldn't have hired me. Horrifying.
Nrama: What year was it that you came back?
Giffen: I have no idea.
Nrama: No idea what year that was?
Giffen: I don't know.
Nrama: What was the first thing you did when you came back to DC?
Giffen: I think it was a story in Ghosts. I think. My first or maybe second job was about a haunted fencing instructor. I remember that distinctly.
Nrama: So you ended up working on Legion of Super-Heroes with Paul Levitz. For that project in particular, did you have something in mind you wanted to do?
Giffen: I just wanted to hit the deadlines and do a good job. Paul actually — it was funny, because I don't know if you realize what actually got me to say yes to Legion of Super-Heroes, because I was still kind of really nervous and gun-shy. I thought maybe I'll just do back-ups for awhile.
Coming onto a book like that, knowing what had happened the last time, I was kind of nervous. I was wondering if I was really ready. And then Paul said, "Oh yeah, and I'm thinking of bringing in Darkseid."
Now back then, Darkseid was not the big, popular villain he is now. He was a character that Paul was going to yank out of New Gods and a few other little appearances.
That's what sold me on it. I just loved Darkseid and the New Gods. And I thought, oh! A chance to do that? OK, fine, I'll do it.
And I just stuck to the deadlines. You know, when you're new in the business, you're up at three o'clock in the morning, trying to make the deadline.
And I guess I learned my lesson, because from then on, it's been regular work.
Nrama: That was a different era too, wasn't it? I mean, what were you making then? Do you remember?
Giffen: I started off at $35 a page. So as you can well imagine, there was no screwing up the deadlines. There was no screwing around. If you didn't do the work, you didn't get paid. And for a while there, I had to do two books a month — this is full art — just to make enough to survive, just to make my nut.
I mean, nowadays, an artist only does one monthly book, or maybe he's only on six books out of the 12 in a year. When I came in the business, you were put onto a monthly book. That was the holy grail. It didn't matter what monthly book it was. That monthly book, if you could maintain it, you got a steady income. You could make a living.
And if it meant burning the midnight oil, you know, collapsing at like 10 o'clock in the morning after a, you know, 36- or 48-hour sprint, that's what you did. That's what you did.
Nrama: During that era, did you need to be in the New York area?
Giffen: I don't think so. There were still people who sent their stuff in. But I was just across the river in New Jersey, and it was kind of good for me. I could go into the office once a week and drop off my work and get a feel for the people at the office — meet the people up at the office and have them get to know me, so I'd pick up a little job here or a little job there.
So for awhile there, especially when I was doing Justice League with Andy Helfer, I'd be in once a week to talk over stuff, to make sure everything's going OK, to figure out where we're going to be moving.
So I think that was helpful to me.
I think if I had lived, like, across the country, and had been Fed-Exing my stuff in, I probably would have fallen into the old habits and screwed up again. But knowing that it was right across the river, and I was bringing my stuff and handing it to them — that kind of grounded me. I didn't want to be the guy who walked in promising five pages and handing in two.
Doing that for years, it took someone who had absolutely no discipline and, through this rote — do the work, hand it in, do the work, hand it in, do the work, hand it in — forced discipline on me. And trust me, I had to force the discipline.
Nrama: Didn't you start writing when you were on Legion of Super-Heroes?
Giffen: No. I was graciously given, by Paul Levitz, a co-plotting credit. I would get written plots from Paul. It wasn't just talking on the phone. But what we did talk on the phone about — and in the office — we'd bounce ideas back and forth. And if Paul used… Paul… I don't know why he gave the co-plotting credit, other than the fact that he said, well, you know, we bounced the ideas around. You have as much to do with this story as I do.
But if I remember the Legion of Super-Heroes correctly when we were doing it, Paul handed in the plot. If I had an idea of, oh, I'll do this visual. Or oh, I'll play around here. It was always within the confines of Paul's plot.
It was just an incredible amount of professional generosity that Paul gave me the co-plotting credit — and probably opened the door for me being able to do plotting, because people looked at it and went, oh, the word plotting is next to his name; let's give him something to do.
So I give Paul a lot of credit for my moving from just penciling to plotting. But he was just an extraordinarily generous writer. He wasn't an "in-it-for-me" person.
Nrama: Why do you think people reacted so positively, among all the different iterations of the team, to the Legion you guys did as such an acclaimed work?
Giffen: I haven't the slightest idea. But I'll tell you one thing: Paul and I loved the book. And if that counts for something, then that's probably what happened.
I think when you're really enjoying the book, when you're really into the book, when you're having fun and you can't wait to do the next issue, it translates to the readers. And we loved doing the book.
I looked forward to every new plot development, and I was left alone to try to redefine the 30th Century. I wasn't told, "No, no, no!" In issue #5, they have gas pedals on their rocket ships. Who cares? You know? So as long as I told the story, Paul was OK with playing around with the cities, playing around with the tech, jerking around with the costumes, which I did constantly.
But it was always about the story. The only thing I can think of for the Legion's popularity back then was that we loved the book. And I think that showed.
Nrama: Was there anyone who was a mentor to you back then?
Giffen: Paul was. Paul was like a mentor to me back then.
Julie Schwartz. Julie Schwartz was a huge mentor to me back then.
And they were mentors not in that they nursed you along, or made exceptions for you. They were mentors in that they were there to make sure you got it done. There were there to say, "Is there a problem? Can I help you out?" They were there with solutions. If they saw you were struggling on something, they would pull you aside and you'd work out the problem.
It was a good time to be in comics, I think. It was a really good time to be in comics.
And back then, if you were doing comics, you were treated like a professional. You weren't treated like some major talent that walked in the door, or like a fan who did comics. You were professional. They expected you to make the deadline. They expected you to do your job. And that was invaluable to me.