Kurt Busiek: Creating Characters for Someone Else's Sandbox

He's the man who built Astro City, the man who threw down the Thunderbolts. For regular readers of our site, you might remember that Kurt Busiek, writer of books such as Astro City, Trinity, and The Wizard's Tale put up a list of all the characters he had ever created for Marvel up on his blog. Part process piece and part retrospective, we sat down with Busiek to discuss character creation, the stories of his successes, as well as Fera, the Wolf-Woman of K'un-Lun.

Newsarama: So recently you put up on your web site a list of every character you've ever created for Marvel. Could you go into what the purpose of the list was? We'd assume it has something to do with the recent acquisition of Marvel by Disney, correct?

Kurt Busiek: I'd assume it does, too, but I think that's something you'd have to ask Marvel.  They didn't go into detail, just said they have some new policies and procedures that could mean additional payments if a character I created is used in some particular ways.  I try to make it very easy for publishers who want to send me money to do so, so I worked up a list of characters I created and sent it in.  I don't really know what kind of character usage they're talking about or which characters might qualify, so I figured better safe than sorry, and worked up a list of all the significant characters I created.  There are others, of course—I created Songbird's parents, and Betty Brant's mother, and a host of cops, SHIELD agents and so on, but I didn't think that's the sort of character they were looking for.

But once I had the list, I figured, why not run it in my blog, for the fun of it?  


Nrama: Going down memory lane a bit, do you remember who the first character you ever created was?

Busiek: I created lots of characters in high school and college, and the first character I created in pro comics was Liana, Green Lantern of M'Elu, for a backup story in Green Lantern #162, my first professional sale.  But the first character I created for Marvel, leaving out, say, the third (fourth?) Chemistro, an unnamed new guy in the Eel costume and the largely faceless Action Squad, who were just a bunch of mercenaries, would be Fera, the Wolf-Woman of K'un-Lun, to face off against Iron Fist in Power Man & Iron Fist #97.

Nrama: How'd you end up coming up with this character? Was this something that you were asked to do by your editors, or was it on your own initiative?

Busiek: On my own.  I didn't get a lot of editorial requests back then—I think Power Man & Iron Fist was a fairly low-priority book, and what was my big break at the time was, to Marvel, just a guy marking time until they could figure out something better to do.

Anyway, I'd been doing stories that were mostly from the Luke Cage side of the partnership, bringing back old villains like Chemistro and even giving perennial losers Shades and Comanche super-powers. But I wanted to bring in some characters from the Iron Fist side, and what with one thing and another, there wasn't anyone who already existed who fit my needs. So I went back and looked at Iron Fist's origin, and the guy who killed his father had been dealt with, but his mother had been killed by wolves. And he couldn't exactly get revenge for that—what's he gonna do, kick some Gil Kane wolf in the chops and say, "That's for Mom, you hairy bastard!"?

But I did think a wolf-powered villain might make a good opponent for a martial artist. So what if the lead wolf, the one that brought his mother down, had been transmuted to human form, as punishment for only doing half the job, killing the woman but letting the child escape? That created some interesting emotional connections—Danny could face the creature that killed his mother, and the transformed wolf would hate Danny for being responsible for her being cursed into human form. I made Fera a woman because why not, and because wolfmen are both a dime a dozen and kind of cliche, but a wolf-woman was a different visual, at least. There was Wolfsbane, who debuted a little earlier, but I'm not sure I'd seen her by then.

I worked up a whole character background—an aristocratic Asian human identity, a feral semi-wolf form, a backstory involving the mystic amulet of Shirrair and a storyline involving Fera as an exotic, sophisticated menace who hates being human and wants to win her return to wolfhood. I even drew the character design myself, swiping heavily from a Dan DeCarlo Veronica Lodge fashion page, as I recall, and adding the surface costume details to that. And then I introduced the character, got to write her mostly in action sequences because we were building up to the big blowout #100, and then I was off the book before I got to play out any of this stuff I'd set up.

And she's largely been forgotten—Mark Gruenwald used her in a Captain America story, renaming her Ferocia to keep her from being confused with Feral, another wolf-woman who'd been created later. I still think there's an interesting character in there, but since all she's ever done is snarl and brawl, nobody's ever seen it. Such are the vicissitudes of working in a shared universe.

Nrama: Moving to the process side of things—when you're creating a character, where do you begin? Are there particular components of their personality, their backstories, their abilities that you need to begin with? What's the most important thing for you?

Busiek: I don't have a formula, that I know of. Sometimes I'll start with a name, sometimes with powers, sometimes with a personality. A lot of times, I'll have a particular story need—I need a villain for a half-structured story, and it's got to be a villain that fits a particular hole, a mastermind or a hireling or a loose cannon or whatever. So I build around whatever I get first, whether it's a visual or a plot need or a set of powers I think would be interesting. I try to make sure a name and a personality come into the process early on, because a good name can imply a visual, or powers, or an attitude, and you end up with a nicely-focused character, where personality, powers, name and visual are all working in concert. If you don't have a name before you work out the rest of the details, finding one can be a pain in the ass, because so many have already been used, and the other details hem you in. It's easier to build the details around a name, if you get that while the character's still being formed.

What's most important? Personality and motivation, I'd say. The most fascinating powers don't mean a thing if the guy's poorly motivated or dull, and the most generic powers won't hurt a well-motivated character. Personality and motivation are what make Magneto Magneto and not Cosmic Boy. The powers work for him, but it's his motivation that makes him the character he is.

Nrama: Is there anything about creating characters that's particularly difficult for you? If so, how do you get around that?

Busiek: I've been doing this for over 25 years now, so I've had a lot of practice. I don't think there's any one thing in particular that's difficult. I guess if I had to pick something, it's the "crowded stage" problem. Most of the characters on that Marvel list aren't any sort of star names, and it's because for the most part, the star roles are already taken. Marvel's got a crowded universe, and there are already so many characters hogging the spotlight that it's hard to break through that. First off, whatever character you're creating, odds are, there's already someone similar, in one way or another. And whatever series you're creating the character for has better-known, already-established heroes and villains in its cast.

Astro City: Dark Age Book 3 #1
Astro City: Dark Age Book 3 #1
So when I'm creating characters for, say, Astro City, it's a lot easier, because I started with a bare stage. I can create the most famous and most popular hero in the world, because I get to define the world. If I want to do that at Marvel or DC, I can't—that role's already full. As are, probably, the second-through-fiftieth most popular characters in that world. So whoever you create, they're likely to be on the sidelines somewhere, unless you can go back in time and plant them back at the beginning of something, like the Sentry. New characters who stand out strongly are few and far between. Lobo, to pick an example, made a splash at DC, but how many thousands of characters came and went before and after him, without anywhere near that impact? It's a crowded stage, and creating any sort of star is like getting hit by lightning; the odds are against it.

Even within those universes, the crowded-stage phenomenon varies from book to book.  Avengers has a rich and well-populated history, so if you create a new character there, it's something of an uphill slog, because the readers want to see the characters they already like.  A book like Thunderbolts, though, is a smaller stage, but there's no competition -- no one was out there demanding that we bring back their favorite old Thunderbolts, not when I started (though they do that now).  So Songbird or Jolt or MACH-1 could emerge as an interesting spotlight character on that particular stage.  Even Baron Zemo and Moonstone, who didn't undergo much character revision at all, suddenly had a spotlight of their own they could blossom in, and became much more popular as a result.

Plus, in working at Marvel or DC, I'm not usually trying to create new headliners. I like using the characters who are already there, so I'm far more likely to pick up some pre-existing character and dust them off than to create someone new. It's fun, I enjoy it. And when a new character who might be a headliner is created, well—there's nothing wrong with Skyrocket as a character. Had she existed back in 1962, she could be one of DC's oft-resurrected characters, who's thought of as part of the very fabric of the DCU. [Of course, she'd be a white man, but still...] Or if she was in a book like Astro City, where she can get in at the founding stages, she'd be an important character.  As it is, though, she's a perfectly-workable hero who gets lost in a sea of them.

How do you get around that? Build new stages, where your characters can have their own spotlight, away from the rest of the crowd. Which itself isn't easy, but then, no one ever said it would be.

Nrama: Do you have any writers who you see as an influence on your method of character creation? Or, as a consumer of literature, are there any novelists, filmmakers, or other storytellers that you feel have informed your creative style?

Busiek: I'm omnivorous, when it comes to influences.  I'm a big fan of Milt Caniff's Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon, so I've studied those for how he gets such good results with character drama and conflict, and have been influenced by that.  Rumiko Fujikawa, for instance, was developed as kind of a modern-day Normandie Drake, the flighty heiress who was Pat Ryan's great love in Terry.  Rumiko came out quite differently, because women's roles and family pressures are very different in recent years than they were in the Thirties, but that's where I started.  I've been influenced by William Goldman and Robert Towne's screenplays, by Lloyd Alexander's children's books, by Leonard Starr's great characters in On Stage, by Lee and Kirby, Bob Kanigher, Len Wein, Steve Englehart, Will Eisner and lots more.  Or by real life—I rooted how I treated Tony Stark when I was writing Iron Man in Howard Hughes, the Rockefellers and Carnegies, and a bit of how Leonard Starr played "Daddy" Warbucks when he was doing "Annie." And some Tom Cruise.

Whatever works, wherever you can see interesting patterns and conflicts and drama, there's stuff to be learned about how to mke characters interesting.

And let's not leave out being petty. One character I once created came about in part because I spent some time after college working as a night watchman on campus, and this one drunken kid was such a hassle one night that I built a character around him and stuck him in a story and had the crap beaten out of him. Only I forgot his name while I was scripting the book, so when I remembered it years later, I used it for another character who got the crap beaten out of him.  Petty revenge, but hey, I'll use whatever works.

Nrama: Now, we can't talk about a list of your Marvel creations without talking about the superhero-but-really-supervillain team known as the Thunderbolts. Back when it first came out, the premise -- of a world without heroes, and these new characters turning out to be the Masters of Evil -- was a huge surprise. Can you describe how that idea came about?

Busiek: I'd had the basic idea years earlier -- I spent a long car drive keeping my brain occupied by coming up with story ideas for Avengers, a book that, at the time, I thought I'd never actually get to write, so I was doing it as a creative exercise, nothing more. One idea I came up with was that over the course of a year, the various Avengers would leave the team, being replaced one by one by new characters, and at the end of the year, the reader would discover that the Avengers were now Captain America and six supposed heroes who wee actually the Masters of Evil in disguise, and they'd taken over the team through stealth.

The idea, as I originally had it, would never have worked—first off, readers would have rebelled if I scrapped all their favorites for new characters, and second, if I managed to make them like the new characters, they'd rebel all over again is I exposed them as bad guys. Doing that with one character, like what Marv Wolfman did with Terra, made a great sting, but doing it on a team-wide scale wouldn't work.

So I put the idea away. And then after Onslaught, I was invited to a Marvel creative summit, to figure out what to do with the Marvel Universe in the wake of losing all their best-loved heroes. And I realized that idea might work after all, with a different twist. A new team arises to take the place of the Avengers and FF, to be those noble, bold, comforting heroes protecting us from danger—but oops, they're really the Masters of Evil and they're out to take over the world.  So I pitched that, and Tom Brevoort and Bob Harras liked it, so off we went.

And it made for a great surprise, and the book worked out well, and now, over a decade later, the team's changed an awful lot, but they're still around. So I'm pretty proud of that, creating something that's still around all this time later. Not many other books that debuted back then have been as lucky.

Nrama: The other big character people associate with you is Marvels narrator Phil Sheldon—what was your inspiration there? Do you feel that coming up with Phil taught you anything, or gave you something new in your creative arsenal? Or was there another character you created previously that made Phil easier to write?

Busiek: Phil was partly crated out of necessity—we needed someone to be a linking element, so we could do stories involving all these characters Alex wanted to paint, and have it all tie together somehow. And we didn't want him to be a superhero character, but we did need someone who could be at a lot of different events. So logic suggested a newsman, and we decided on a photographer because it was a bit more distinctive than making him a reporter, and it gave him a focus on visuals. So there's a lot of the character right there, built from logic and story requirements.

But in fleshing out what kind of character he'd be, I was heavily influenced by Nevil Shute's novels about quiet, ordinary men who do heroic things when circumstances call on them to, novels like Trustee from the Toolroom, Ruined City and Pied Piper.  Phil isn't actually like any of these characters, since they were all heroes in their way, while Phil remains an observer. But that sense Shute got into his novels of ordinary men in extraordinary circumstances, that was a key element of Phil. So I knew I wanted him to be very ordinary, very mild, not a dashing squared-jawed man of action, but somebody who'd embody the man on the street view, at least to start.

After that, I built on things like the fact that he grew up in New York in the Twenties and Thirties, so he was an urban kid who lived through the Depression, and that would shape his worldview.  Things like that, taking the basic idea and fleshing it out into an individual.

I do think writing Phil opened up new areas for me, in that before that I did stay very focused on the hero, rather than ordinary guys. I wrote a couple of stories from the points of view of normal people reacting to the heroes before that—an Avengers backup called "The Day the Strangers Came," about a kid in small-town Iowa and what it's like the day the Avengers come to town, and "The Applicant," an 8-page Iron Man story about a guy in the Stark Enterprises motor pool who keeps applying for transfer to the Iron Man program. Neither of them were much like Phil, but writing from those viewpoints gave me some grounding in writing a perspective like Phil's.

Nrama: Later in your career, Astro City became your baby. What was the appeal there for you? In terms of coming up with characters, who was the first resident of Astro City? Or, if you have to choose between your babies, is there a favorite?

Busiek: The primary hook for me, in creating Astro City, was that I wanted to tell stories from other points of view, explore a superhero world from the angles we didn't normally see.  What was it like to be a guy on the street, what did it feel like to be present at these big events and overwhelmed by them, but not have any power to do anything about it? Things grew and changed from there, but that was the starting point.

Probably the first "resident" of Astro City was Samaritan, simply because I'd been carrying that story around with me for a while, waiting for the right place to tell it. Scott McCloud had challenged me to do a 24-Hour Comic, and while I never did one, this was the story I'd come up with for it, inspired by old flying dreams and a book about a couple of guys who got an arts grant to build a catapult. The feeling of flight, more than the use of it in a plot, was where I started, and built a story and a character around that.

But many of the Astro City characters are older than that; I've been coming up with characters and stories for years, and just didn't have the place to tell them yet. Elliot Mills, the reporter in #2, came about because my mother sent me a newspaper clipping about a Boston subway delayed by a frozen shark, and I saved it for years because I wanted to tell a story about it, the story that became ASTRO CITY #2. So that story existed longer than Samaritan did, but it wasn't put into the Astro City hopper until after I'd already decided to tell the Samaritan story. So I suppose it depends on how you count.

As for a favorite—my standard answer is that my favorite Astro City hero is Quarrel, I just haven't shown readers why, yet. But I love the normal people in Astro City, the doorman at the Classic and the guy dreaming of a wife he never met and the father trying to do the right thing for his kids.  So it's hard to pick a favorite, when there's a new one around every corner, with their own story to tell...

Nrama: Returning to the creation of your Marvel list -- something we should ask is about the realm of creator rights. What do you think the big issues are for creators nowadays, especially with Marvel being bought by Disney, and Warner Bros. taking more of an interest in DC, and creator-owned comics coming out more and more each year?

Busiek: I don't know if I have an answer to that.  I'm sure different creators have different issues.  Me, I like to create my own characters, my own worlds, but I also like to play in the big sandbox with the cool toys I liked when I was a kid.  Right now, I'm working on more creator-owned stuff than not, but that's because I came off a year on Trinity, immersing myself in the big sprawling universe and gazillions of characters, and I'm ready to do some other stuff.  But after a while doing that, the lure of the big universes will grow stronger, too.  Mainly, what I like to do is keep things varied and not get in a rut, not tell the same stories over and over.

Within that context, it'd be nice to have as much control over what I do as I can manage, and to share in whatever revenue gets generated by what I do.  There are too many stories of comics creators who don't get a dime when characters they invented appear in movies that make hundreds of millions of dollars, so anything that makes things more fair, that shares the wealth with the creators who made those stories possible, is all to the good.  With Marvel being bought by Disney and Warners creating DC Entertainment, there's even more of an awareness that these characters and stories may well have a life beyond the comics page, so creators and publishers are being more careful about negotiating fairer deals.  So whether it's creator-owned work under the control of the writers and artists who thought it up, or company-owned work that gives creators a share of what their characters earn, I think we've been seeing movement in the right direction, and I hope we see more of it.

Now about that Fera, Wolf-Woman of K'un-Lun TV series...

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