Tom King is about to have a very interesting 2016.
Not only was he announced to take over the reins of Batman from Scott Snyder as one of DC's newest exclusive writers, but his Vertigo creator-owned series Sheriff of Babylon and Marvel title The Vision are two of the consistently top-reviewed titles in the past year by our own Best Shots review team. King was also recently nominated for an Eisner, along with John Paul Leon for the short story “Black Death in America” in Vertigo Quarterly: Black.
With such a hyped year ahead for King, Newsarama sat down with the author to talk about his upbringing and why he considers his career everything he could hope for. We met up at Washington, D.C.’s We, The Pizza for some slices and comic talk and all things Tom King.
Newsarama: So, Tom, what do you have lined up this week that you can at least talk about?
Tom King: This week I’m finishing up Batman #4 and starting #5. So that’s just a little bit of a thing I have to do.
Nrama: No big deal, right?
King: None at all. Assuming it gets passed the editors, too. Then I rotate back to The Vision and Sheriff of Babylon.
Nrama: You have a lot of books out right now…
King: I do have a lot of books out.
Nrama: Did it feel weird to get a collective amount of praise all at once for them? Was that something that applies a lot of pressure or do you feed off of it?
King: I feel like I started at a level 10 pressure and there was no 11. When somebody first told me hey, you’re going to write a comic and we’ll pay you for it, it’s not going to go up from there. So when I’m told “that comic is good,” I say well I have to do the next one whether you like it or not. It’s always stressful to face that page. The stress level doesn’t rise or fall for me.
Nrama: Yeah, but given your past as a C.I.A. operative, the stress level has to be somewhat lesser than that, right? Emotionally, how do you go from a position like that to where you are now?
King: I always wanted to write comics. Growing up I was a super nerd.
Nrama: Never would have figured.
King: [Laughs] Right? Never would have figured.
Nrama: I mean, let’s be honest, the C.I.A. recruitment process is a bit weird as is.
King: Yeah, it was weird. The whole thing was weird. Comics recruiting process is a little weird [laughs]. There are both situations where you have people saying you’ll never make it and this dream is impossible and you won’t get there. So have that in common. Also, they have places where you enter the field and you look to the left and right of you, you see that the people next to you are much more qualified than I am [laughs]. I don’t stand a chance! But maybe, it prepared me in a way because when I was told this is impossible I got to fire back with how I’ve done the impossible interview before, bring it on again!
Nrama: When did you realize that you wanted to get out of your C.I.A. position and start writing?
King: It didn’t come out of nowhere, I interned at Marvel and DC when I was in college and wanted to write comics growing up. That was a life goal for me as a kid. My mother wanted me to either become a lawyer or a doctor. Jewish mother, so you understand. Also I grew up in Hollywood, but it wasn’t like "Oh, all these people around me have jobs in entertainment," it was more like wow, all these people are unemployed entertainers. It’s like winning the lottery basically to make it. I was supposed to go into law school and then 9/11 happened and I did this C.I.A. thing. So, then I had a kid and I worked back here at DC for a while doing connect-the-dot stuff.
Nrama: Were you at headquarters in Langley?
King: I was, but most of my career was not. The last portion of it, I came back and it was more of a desk job and watch people the do the job I more wanted to do. I was big into counter-terrorism, loved going overseas and that’s a very good job and very rewarding, but I had a kid and to be really good at that job, you have to be around 15 hours a day. With the counter-terrorism you have to be able to go 24/7. So those were the options I was looking at.
My dad left when I was young. I didn’t have a dad. I’m part of that divorced generation and didn’t want to do that to my kids, so I took a year off and became a full-time dad, changed diapers and all that while my wife worked. I wrote at night, eight hours a day, three times a week and slept during the day while the baby was napping. After that year was up, we reevaluated the situation at a Starbucks. The one where my wife and I met, actually.
I had sent in a short story that had been rejected twelve times and got one nice letter back essentially saying “you’ve got potential." And I’m like, yeah, maybe I do have potential!
King: Yeah, maybe! So my wife pulled the trigger and left the C.I.A. and started writing. Honestly, the jobs that were available outside the C.I.A. were all working at a desk, analyzing stuff and security stuff and that never appealed to me. I didn’t have a backup plan, so I just wrote.
Nrama: You had to at that point for survival, right?
King: Yeah, I’ve been the desperate writer before. I wrote a novel and they paid me for it and I’ve had those calls from my agent and I’m like, "Do you need me to ghost write a vampire novel? What do you need? I’ll do Transformers...tell me!"
I remember being at World Con and talking to this guy and asked how many books he published. “Under my own name, I’ve done seven, but I’ve done about 30 in not my own name.” How do I get into that industry? You just need money so you write so you can get bottles and other baby stuff.
Nrama: You said you didn’t have a backup plan, but going into this, what was your main goal?
Nrama: Aside from making money and surviving, obviously.
King: Oh, that’s number one. Making money. [Laughs] I loved comics and I still do. I think they’re another American art form, like jazz, I felt like there was stuff that hasn’t been explored yet and had room to grow. I started out as a novelist and I think novels have gotten a little stiff, a little repetitive and the energy in comics was much more appealing. I mean, my first novel had comic book pages in it and I just thought if we could turn that energy into something...
Nrama: What’s your novel?
King: A Once Crowded Sky, published by Simon and Schuster. Nobody bought it. You can find copies on eBay for a penny, I’m sure, but I love it. I don’t know, I wanted to be a comic book writer. I didn’t have a specific story to tell. I wanted to use panels, I wanted to use word balloons…
Nrama: You wanted to make a comic.
King: I wanted to make a comic.
Nrama: Talk us through that moment of when you first started making comics.
King: So my novel got published and I became a paid writer, which was nice, and then it came out and nobody bought it so I became an unemployed writer again. I sent out emails to every single editor at Marvel and DC, IDW and Oni...there’s not an editor out there that hasn’t ignored an email from Tom King. Fortunately, I had worked with Cliff Chiang, so he backed me up and told people I wasn’t crazy and Karen Berger at Vertigo helped me get my first break.
It was at one New York Comic Con, either 2011, 2012, she wanted to meet with me and have lunch. I thought that was cool, you know, setting up a meet and greet to see if I was crazy or whatever, then have a follow up meeting. So it was like “Hi, Karen Berger, the most famous editor in the world” who discovered some of the biggest names ever. So she asked me if we wanted to meet at my table and talk about a comic I might want to do.
I’ve tabled at a lot of comic cons, so my table was a mess! It’s got Diet Pepsi bottles all over the place and you have the display but behind it is just chaos and ugliness! So she goes "pitch me a comic" and I was totally unprepared and I pitched her something and it just died. It fell out of my mouth and onto the table like a dead rat and she’s poking it and it was just horrible. You can see in her face “oh, not this” and she said very kindly “Interesting, why don’t I hand you over to one of my assistant editors and maybe you could do an eight-pager for us.” So she handed me over to Mark Doyle and we did an eight-pager together with Tom Fowler, and that was my first comic.
Mark and I worked together for about a year developing pitches and I did another eight-pager for Vertigo, which is what I was just Eisner-nominated for and then Mark became the Bat editor.
Basically, we had done a bunch of pitches that went through Shelly Bond and she approved them and one of those pitches was Sheriff of Babylon. So Mark and I were talking and he suggested I co-write something with him because nobody knew who I was and that is how Grayson came about, with Tim Seeley in a Future’s End crossover, which I wrote backwards. Everyone was saying how I was a weird writer and that’s where it all started.
Nrama: That’s really good though, I mean it does seem like to a lot of readers you sort of came out of nowhere. I don’t want to say hiding in the shadows, biding your time like some sort of scripting ninja, but you’ve really gotten your name out. Then, what was next, Omega Men or The Vision?
King: I think most people have gone a similar route. I’ve done the smallest cons, I’ve begged so many people to buy my books. I used to make magnets and I’ve picked them up and thrown them at people to get their attention “hey, c’mere!”. I mean, do you know how many cons I did in 2012? [laughs] I got sick so many times.
Nrama: It’s almost like making comics is analogous with carnie life.
King: It is! It’s funny because you come up with some people, I live in the DC area so I know all the guys here who do the local Virginia cons and we’re all still friends and you see the guys at the same shows. The first time you see them, you get a sketch from them, second time, you make friends with them, third time is just “ugh, how’d you do”. Everybody asks the same question: how’d you do, what’d ya make? The best I ever did at a con was WonderCon and I was tabled next to a guy who made pony stuff.
Nrama: Licensed pony stuff?
King: No, of course not. And there was this huge line of little girls and their dads that had completely blocked my table. The dads were so bored out of their mind with the pony stuff that they bought my book because it was sitting there. I feel like you can’t write good comics until you’ve been in a line blocking your table from people trying to buy ponies.
Okay, right, so Omega Men…sorry, I talk too much.
Nrama: That’s fine – it is what we’re here for.
King: So Omega Men came about because Brian Cunningham wanted to relaunch it at DC and they were looking for a writer with a different take on this. I guess it was the C.I.A. stuff, so they asked me if I have a different take on this and it was the same weekend that Guardians of the Galaxy hit huge and it was like, I get it. This is what you want for your analog. Okay. We’re going to be the NSync to their Backstreet Boys, okay. So I pitch it as Guardians of the Galaxy in the DCU and so you had a Legion of Superheroes character, an Atomic Knights character, they’re all together having adventures.
Nrama: It’s like you wanted a Space Justice League.
King: Exactly! So they take that and go “you basically just pitched Guardians of the Galaxy, you realize that right?” and I was like, isn’t that what you wanted? Aren’t we in the business of copying Marvel?
Nrama: Oh, man…
King: I was ignorant! I didn’t know better! I don’t know, it was just a bad presumption on my part. So they said no, we want you to do something original and cool. So I was like, how about terrorists in space. And they go, do that, something crazy and cool. Let’s see if we can make it the worst-selling comic in DC, but still get 12 issues out of it. I was like great plan! [laughs]
But seriously, we went back to the original Omega Men and took that premise and how it was essentially a Star Wars rip-off; it’s rebels versus the Empire, and Star Wars is a Akira Kurosawa rip-off. So this would be rebels versus the empire with rebels willing to do anything to fight the empire and the empire willing to do anything to fight off these rebels. It became more analogous to Great Britain fighting their own colonial battles in the late 19th century as well as America fighting their own battles with Al Qaeda overseas.
To dig into that pain and into that wreckage, I pulled some interesting stories out of it.
Nrama: Was it weird when they announced the cancellation, but because fans were so vocal, you managed to succeed with your twelve issues?
King: It was weird and incredibly the most flattering thing that’s ever happened to me, outside of my wife agreeing to marry me. And also, you asked me if I was scared before, and that was scary because I got the call from Andy Khouri, my editor, saying we’ve been cancelled. I was like, well yeah, that make sense, nobody’s buying the comic and we discussed how to end it. So we rewrote the ending to, I believe Omega Men #5, and then we got another call from DC Co-Publisher Jim Lee saying we’re not un-cancelled. So it was scary to see if I could get this train that I purposely derailed back on the rails and come through with it.
Nrama: So what was it like going from Omega Men to Vision? I feel like The Vision has one of the most convoluted backstories in comics.
King: I just turned in #7, which is all about Vision’s backstories.
Nrama: Victor Shade forever.
King: Victor Shade forever! [laughs]
Nrama: So you have Omega Men is this grand space opera, but by comparison, The Vision is a lot more grounded...as much as it can be. What’s the process of you honing it and keeping things more focused?
King: I don’t know. [Pauses] You just write the page in front of you and what’s needed for the character. You try not to write the page you wrote yesterday. That sounds stupid, but I don’t think of it in terms of oh, I’m switching gears or something. It’s just what I need to write today.
So now, I’m trying to wrap up these series and I was talking to Scott Snyder and he used the metaphor of trying to land a plane.
Nrama: Has Scott ever landed a plane?
King: Probably, yeah. In a field somewhere safe. Saving the lives of children.
Nrama: Have you ever landed a plane?
King: That I can’t comment on.
So yeah, you just put it in automatic and make the landing. I’m putting three series to a close: The Vision, Omega Men, and Sheriff of Babylon...well, that’s an ongoing, but there’s a first season and a second season, so they’re both twelve issue series. So I’m taking a step back and looking at them and they all seem to be all very tied together and related and talk to each other, but all in different genres.
Nrama: Well it’s all your voice.
King: Well it’s hopefully my voice, but I hope Kyle doesn’t sound exactly like Vision who sounds exactly like Chris. I’m sure they’ll all go into space and contemplate their own demise at some point. I feel like I’m rewriting the same story, even though they’re in different genres, about somebody who is innocent or ignorant and assumes something will go well and it all goes poorly and how they react to it.
Nrama: You also work with three completely different artists stylistically speaking. With Sheriff, you have a more cinematic pacing, where Omega Men is definitely more comic book-based. What’s it like writing for each of them?
King: I feel like comics have to compete now with these TV shows that are blowing everybody’s mind and with how they do their cliffhangers. I draw from a lot of that. Like, what would this be if this was Mad Men or Breaking Bad or The Wire or whatever? I don’t see them as different artists, and I do the layouts for Omega Men, too. They’re all geniuses though, so that helps. They all know how to draw inside the box, it’s very pure comics.
When you write a script, you imagine the comic in your head and then describe what you’re seeing. With all three of those guys, it’s so very easy with what they’re seeing. They all have different styles, but that’s what they have in common, which makes things easy to flow. I write differently for each of them, but not that much differently.
Just to name them, Barnaby Bagenda, who does Omega Men who is a goddamn genius. We discovered him off of DeviantArt of all places. Obviously,
Gabriel Hernandez Walta, who in my opinion, his work on The Vision is the best art in comics, with the exception of the three other people I work with, and Jordie Bellaire who does colors.
And Mitch Gerads, who is the best military--I used to say one of the best--artist in comics. I think he’s surpassed the others. Also, a good friend of mine, as he’s also friends with everybody as he’s a nice goddamn guy. Sheriff would not be possible without Mitch. He is 100% a co-creator and responsible for what’s on the page as I am. Another artist could not do that book the way he has and I could not do it alone because he does so much research. I mean, I was there so I just picture it in my head and write it, but he has to go in and find it and make them appear as they were. Maybe some gun that they used or some obscure location that is longer there because somebody blew it up, and he’s like, yeah, I found it and I’m going to draw it.
Also, I think he’s trying to do something that is somewhat impossible these days, but to deliver twelve issues in a year. I work with a lot of comic artists, some of the best in the business and delivering twelve in a year is a ton to ask someone. Mitch is at the top of his game. It’s just awe inspiring.
Nrama: We can’t talk a lot about your upcoming Batman, but let’s talk about how Batman was defined for you. Prince recently passed away, but his music in the first Tim Burton Batman was so defining for a generation like myself…
King: And me!
Nrama: So what was the first big Batman impression growing up?
King: I mean when you’re a little, bullied, and oppressed kid, Batman is the one that punches back. Superman is the one that saves you and is kind. Batman is the one that makes you think why is this unfair? He was that sense of pure justice in the medieval sense.
Nrama: Adam West or Michael Keaton?
King: Michael Keaton for me. I love Keaton’s Batman.
I want to draw from the ‘66 Batman, but yeah Michael Keaton was perfect.
Nrama: So you’re following the most well-received run of Batman in the modern era, how are you handling the pressure?
King: Uh, poorly? [Laughs] I don’t know, we’ll see how long I hide under my desk. It’s more than that though, Scott’s a good friend of mine and it is like going to bat after Babe Ruth. What are you going to do? You have to remember that Scott came on after Grant Morrison did a five-year run, and some people rank as one of the best Batman runs of all time. So it’s these two guys who have been handling Batman, which can’t be said about a lot of characters. So what do you do? You go up to bat and you hit it out. It’s no more intimidating than writing my first issue of Dick Grayson. It should be, but I can’t think of it that way, otherwise it would crush me.
I will tell you what intimidates me though: Frank Miller. When I think about how "Year One" was just four issues, that scares me. That was in Batman proper, too. When I think about that, that scares me. When you have the potential to create such a classic piece like that.
Nrama: Especially given the fact he was, what, 28, 29?
King: I know, I know! That’s another thing that intimidates me. I couldn’t think of anybody 28, 29, and then James Tynion IV is on Detective Comics and he’s that age! Aw, man!
Nrama: Where do you see yourself in the next few years? Do you see yourself going down creator-owned again soon? Because Sheriff of Babylon is getting such high praise already...and I love it. I wasn’t too familiar with your stuff as I was with Mitch, since I’ve known him since the Comic Twart days.
King: You’re a Comic Twart fan?! Can we talk about my secret plan to work with all the Twarts?
Nrama: I think we can.
King: Tom Fowler, I started with him. Mitch, I’ve done. I’ve done an issue with Doc Shaner. Who am I missing?
Nrama: Francesco Francavilla, Dan McDaid, Declan Shalvey, Mitch Breitweiser, Chris Samnee, Ron Salas.
King: I tried to get Samnee for something, but couldn’t score it. I am all about Twarting the world. And I feel like Gabriel Hardman was associated with that crew.
Nrama: Oh, he was, yeah! You never know who is going to break out next in comics and all those guys are just super talented and some are the biggest names comics have to offer.
But yeah, what would you like to do next?
King: There’s a thousand ideas and I could work with some stuff. Sheriff of Babylon is my outlet for a lot of that stuff since its creator-owned and I own that, but I feel in all honesty, for now, I love writing Big Two stuff. I grew up a nerd and I like playing with these toys. I feel like my friends are going to yell at me about this, but there’s something about the magic of those characters and their history and what comes with standing on the shoulders of giants. I enjoy it immensely.
I mean I have ideas, but I’m not in this to just work for a while then go over to Image for a creator-owned title. That’s not my career path that I see for myself. That Robert Kirkman path that he laid out in 2007 or so where everybody went that’s insane, nobody would ever do that, now everybody does it. I want to write the best corporate comics that have ever been corporatized. I’m sorry [laughs] I’m a complete sell out.
Nrama: Wrapping up, Tom, if you could describe your career in one word, what would it be?
Nrama: Well okay, in two words? [laughs]
King: Super nerd? I mean it’s going to be the same word, mother f-cker! [laughs] I have a great career though! When I write Omega Men, I get to write Star Wars-type of space fantasy. When I do The Vision I get to write complete literary comics that want to be on the shelf forever and actually mean something to people. Sheriff I get to write about my own crooked demons that I feel like you have to write as an author and with Batman, I get to write Batman. What more could I want from my career?