It's commonly understood that during the 1980's and 1990's, comic books took a turn toward the grim and gritty.
Except, that is, comic books drawn and penned by Keith Giffen.
From his hand in the creation of Ambush Bug to his run on Justice League International with co-writer J.M. DeMatteis and his creation of the over-the-top macho man, Lobo, Giffen functioned during that time period as the anti-grim and gritty guy.
Yet that time period also saw some turmoil for the artist-turned-writer. First, in the mid-'80s, he was accused of swiping another artist's work, and then once the decade was ending, he struggled to find work and ended up drawing storyboards for animation.
In this third installment of our interview with Keith Giffen, we go behind the page to talk about how he survived the '90s, why he was accused of copying another artist and whether he still enjoyed comic books after so many years in the business.
Newsarama: Keith, we just talked about your run on Justice League with J.M. DeMatteis. You said you were in the "right place at the right time with the right attitude" - injecting humor into the otherwise grim and gritty landscape of the late-'80s/early-'90s. But after that, if you look at your bibliography, you did a lot of stuff with a humorous tone. Did you feel like that fit you? Or did you get typecast?
Keith Giffen: It just fit me. After doing Justice League…. Justice League taught me that humor has a place in the books. It can be broad, vaudevillian humor, like Guy Gardner with "Girls Night Out," or it could be more subtle humor.
When I started Justice League, and when I ended Justice League, it was two different Keith Giffens.
Nrama: Because you learned about humor?
Giffen: Because I came out of Justice League realizing that, OK, humor has a place.
And from then on, most of my books utilized a sense of humor.
Justice League was an education that I didn't even know I was getting.
By the way, when we were doing Justice League, we were aware of the fact, at times, that we were DC's top-selling books; we were right up there. But it never affected the way we approached the book. We never said, "Oh, we're a good-selling book, so we have to protect this."
Marc and I were like two kids playing with fire. Eventually, something was going to burn. But we have fun doing it.
Nrama: You talked about how grim and gritty everything was in the '90s.
Nrama: It transitioned to the 2000s, where there wasn't as much grim and gritty. Do you feel like you played a role in that, not only because of you guys introducing some unexpected humor in Justice League, but also because, after Justice League, many of your titles and the characters you used and created (particularly Lobo) just seemed to fly in the face of what was happening in the '90s.
Giffen: Sometimes I wonder about how I got away with some of that stuff, actually. I give a lot of credit to both DC and Marvel for letting me play around during that time period. For a while there, it seemed to be that, if the companies wanted a book with a certain tone - and I'm not even sure they were married to the tone - but if they wanted a certain attitude toward a book, they'd contact me or Marc or somebody.
On Justice League, I think we carved a niche, and we did pretty well in that niche.
I've never been one of these people who thought, "Oh no! I'm typecast!" No, I'm happy to be typecast. If I'm the guy who does the "quirky sense of humor" books and is relied upon to introduce weird stuff to the story? Fine. Absolutely fine. Because that's what I feel most comfortable doing.
The only time were brought onto a book where we were specifically told to do it like Justice League was when we were on The Defenders. That was it.
Otherwise, it was, "Here's the book: What are you going to do with it?" We got the book just the way anyone else did, and just like if you gave a book to Steve Gerber, and he's not given half as much credit as we are about having a wry sense of humor in his books.
So it was just the assignment, and how did we approach it? And I think when people put me or Marc on a book - me alone, or me with Marc - they sort of had an idea what they were going to get.
Nrama: You also worked on some manga back then - that was certainly the time period for its popularity and discovery in America.
Giffen: Yeah, Battle Royale. Mark Paniccia, one of the better editors I've ever worked with - he's right up there with Andy Helfer.
The Battle Royale thing came about… I think I was doing I Luv Halloween with Benjamin Roman up at TokyoPOP and they just got the rights to do Battle Royale.
And I loved the Battle Royale movie - absolutely loved that movie.
So I basically called Mark Paniccia and said, "You know, I want this book. If I don't get it, I might get violent."
And Mark just sort of, you know, was like, "OK!" We landed on the book.
I'd get very, very crude translations and my mandate was to make it palatable for an American audience. And I had fun with it. I loved doing the Battle Royale stuff.
As a matter of fact, there were very few things I worked on at TokyoPOP that I didn't like. It was a lot of fun to do.
Nrama: You've worked for… is it a dozen different comic book companies? I mean, your resumé is really, really varied across a lot of publishers.
Giffen: I've worked for a lot.
Nrama: Are you anti-exclusive?
Giffen: Most of my time at DC has been spent under an exclusive contract. I'm under exclusive contract now. But no, that wasn't always the case.
I look at an exclusive contract as a company saying to you, "We want to keep you around. We'll keep you working." It's job security. In other words, I know what I'm doing tomorrow. I know that I'm not going to be scrambling.
And trust me, in our industry, you scramble for work.
But an exclusive means, from this time to this time, we will give you work. And I've been lucky enough that the work I've done, apparently, they like enough that they keep renewing the contract.
I never had an exclusive contract with Marvel.
Nrama: Even during Annihilation?
Giffen: Even during Annihilation.
But I've had exclusive contracts with DC for a while now.
And don't get me wrong. I could always go in and say to them, "I'd like to do this little thing for this little company," and get special permission to do it. It's not this draconian thing where it's like, "You belong to us now!" It's not like that at all.
So yeah, it just means I have work. And in this business, believe me, I consider myself damn lucky.
Nrama: Before we talk about Annihilation and your more recent work, I want to ask about a controversy that emerged in the mid-'80s, where you were accused of swiping art, or being too heavily influenced by art. I know you've addressed this before, but since we're being pretty thorough here…
Giffen: I've said this before, and I'll say it again… did I swipe? Did I have the pages laid out next to me and copy off of them? No.
Did I become completely absorbed by it? Yes.
And that's really just as bad.
So swipe artist? No. I won't say that. And people say it, fine, fine, I'm not going to argue it. But it was just being mind-blown and absorbing a good deal too much into my work. And that's as much as I'm going to say on that.
Nrama: And you were pretty young at the time. This was… was it during Legion? Or wait, it was in between your stints on Legion, wasn't it?
Giffen: No, yeah.
I didn't even know, like, when I saw the name Jose Antonio Muñoz and Carlos Sampoya - I was so used to the American way of it, where the writer's name came first: Levitz/Giffen. You know? DeMatteis and Giffen and Maguire. So for a long time, I thought - because I just had these Xeroxed pages of this stuff that a friend of mine, a big stack, that a friend of mine laid on me, and they just absolutely floored me.
So for a while there, I'd be telling people about this great artist Sampayo, and they'd look at me like I'm insane.
It was just one of those things where I became utterly, mindlessly infatuated with it, and I took it too far. That I will cop to. If someone says, "Oh, no, you had it next to your drawing board!" No. No, I did not. And I know, because I was there.
Nrama: How did that stop? Is it because someone pointed it out? Or did it just cease to be that big of an influence?
Giffen: It was pointed out, and I looked at it and went, "Holy f***ing sh*t." It was like a wake-up call. And I walked away from it, because I don't want to be that guy.
Nrama: OK, back to the late '90s and early 2000's - you individually, through all of this, were you loving the comic book industry? Did you want to stay in comic books the rest of your life?
Giffen: I still do! I still do! I love the field. If I'm allowed to, I will do this until the day I f**ing die.
I love the format. I like the way I can tell stories. I'd like to see a bit more diversity in comics, but I can't say I'm not satisfied.
DC could call me on almost any job - I remember when Dan DiDio called me and said, "Hey! How about Magog?" I spent a bit of time. I thought about it. Is there an angle in there that I can embrace? Is there a way I can get into the character? The answer was yes. I teamed up with Howard Porter and we did Magog.
I don't believe there is bad character out there. I really, honestly don't believe there is a bad character out there. There's bad handling, and I know, because I've done it.
Giffen: Oh, God, I'm not going to go into that! But there have been a few things I've looked at and gone, "Oh, God! What was I thinking? What was I doing?"
But I don't care. Brother Power the Geek, in the right hands, could be a successful character.
Nrama: But didn't you take a break from the comic book industry for awhile and do storyboards?
Giffen: Yeah, yeah.
The comic work - I don't recall the exact reason, but the comic work wasn't coming in as regularly. I don't know if the industry trended around to what I was doing, or if I had stepped on the wrong toes. I have no idea what happened.
But for a while there, it was really, really slim pickin's and I couldn't make a living.