After 40 years in the comic book business, Keith Giffen is one of the best known creators from that era still working in the industry today. The Queens-born creator entered the industry in 1975 as an artist, and through many ups and downs over the years, he's emerged as a respected writer and artist who's still active today.
Newsarama has talked to Giffen over the course of several interviews - first about his early years, then about the '90s and his work on Justice League International, and about what kept him going in the industry. Now we turn attention to what saved his career more recently - how he came back after leaving the industry, why he keeps coming back to comic books, and whether he has any regrets.
Newsarama: Keith, you said previously that, for in the late 1990s and early 2000s, you couldn't get much work in the comic book industry. How did that lead to you doing storyboards?
Keith Giffen: My name was mentioned to Bruce Timm, who liked my stuff and gave me a shot on storyboarding.
I did it for a while, and I enjoyed it. I worked on Batman Beyond and a few other things.
But - and this is going to sound weird - it wasn't comic books. I was always going to go back to my first love. Was it enjoyable? Yes! Did I learn stuff? Yes! Did I work with some really amazing people? Yes, I did.
But I couldn't see myself doing it for a living.
Because I had that attitude, my work started slowing down, and I thought, "If I keep this up, I'm going to be in danger."
When I was on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles revamp, I just called and said I can't do this anymore.
And then I wandered back into comics.
I was basically the same person I was when I wandered out to storyboards, but the field seemed to have evolved. So I found a place in there.
I consider myself really lucky for that.
I consider myself lucky that I'm 64 years old and I'm still in demand! You know? I mean, I never lose sight of that.
Nrama: You did a few things in the early 2000's, but I think the next major work was Marvel's Annihilation, followed by your co-creation of Blue Beetle Jaime Reyes back at DC. And Annihilation led to the revamp of Marvel's space heroes. You also returned to Rocket Raccoon, a character you co-created way back in the '70s. Did that feel like a turning point to you, either for the characters or for your career?
Giffen: Well, I have to give then-Marvel editor Andy Schmidt a lot of credit for that. He had a vision, and I shared in it. He wanted to do this book that would feature the Marvel cosmic characters.
Annihilation, the nugget, was his idea. I extrapolated on it. I played with it.
And I certainly benefitted from it.
Andy Schmidt is sort of the invisible man of the Marvel cosmic universe, and if it wasn't for him, and for his enthusiasm, and his drive, it wouldn't have happened.
Nrama: Out of Annihilation came the new Guardians of the Galaxy. I know you didn't really create the new version of the team, but you pulled together a few of those characters, didn't you? Wasn't that in the second Annihilation event?
Giffen: I did the first Annihilation, which was wildly successful. And then I was called and asked if I wanted to do the Star-Lord side book for the second Annihilation.
I don't really remember the exact order of events, but I think I had told Andy Schmidt "never again" about Annihilation. I was exhausted. And so they gave the second event to Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, who did a spectacular job. Just a spectacular job.
And I was given Star-Lord, one of the little mini-series, and we started talking about it. And we thought, why not form some sort of team like the Suicide Squad? A team that's being sent off to a mission and they're not expected to come back.
I remember that we were going over the membership, and we had it pretty well sealed in.
And Andy Schmidt just looked at me and said, "What about that raccoon character?"
So you can even give Andy a pat on the back for introducing Rocket Raccoon to the mix.
Nrama: As humorously written by his co-creator, Keith Giffen.
Giffen: I don't even think of myself as a creator on that character though - all I did was draw a raccoon.
But Andy, he's the genius behind that.
Nrama: You turned Peter Quill back into Star-Lord. And you put him and Rocket Raccoon with Groot, right? Am I remembering that right?
Giffen: Yeah, we had Groot, Mantis, Bugm and a few other characters. And Rocket Raccoon. It was just a matter of telling a story about how they're off on this mission.
Having done Justice League and the other books for so long, a certain sense of humor was going to come into it.
I never thought of it as, "Oh, this will turn into something that's going to be wildly successful!" No, it was just a job. I was done, and I moved on to the next thing. I didn't see Guardians of the Galaxy coming.
Nrama: You said, "I benefitted from" Annihilation. Do you feel like Annihilation turned things around for you as a comic book creator?
Giffen: I think so, because I was over at Marvel. And my sojourns to Marvel are usually because I have a blow-up at DC and I just have to get out for a while. I don't recall what happened at DC, but at that point, I said, "I gotta get out for a while." And I was lucky there were people there who would give me work. And I wound up on Annihilation.
And from Annihilation and the Star-Lord thing, I think then I was brought back to DC for Blue Beetle, where we worked on Jaime as the new Blue Beetle, and also because Greg Rucka and Geoff Johns were making a big stink about, on 52, they needed a consistent layout artist. And all those plots I had done, when I had drawn the little comic books, qualified me for that.
Nrama: And the storyboards, I assume?
Giffen: To some extent. But I think it was the way I did the plotting and stuff like that. So I was brought onto 52, and I've been at DC ever since, really.
Nrama: You were in the room during the planning of 52, right? The creative sessions up front?
Giffen: Yeah. So was J.G. Jones. Everyone was in the room. No idea was too outrageous. You could just burp it out. Everyone contributed. It would be very hard to point to a piece of 52 and go, "that was my idea." Or "that's all Morrison's" or whatever.
It's a book that shouldn't have succeeded. A weekly comic book coming out for a year? I firmly believe that part of the appeal of 52 was that people were buying it, waiting for the train wreck. And the fact that we actually pulled it off - and we came out of the tail-end sane - I have a lot of pride in 52.
Those four writers were at the top of their game. J.G. Jones gave us some of the best covers I've ever seen. I'd like to think that my layouts helped the artists by handing them stuff so they didn't have to think about how to rework the page. I don't know.
But 52 was one of those experiences where everything came together.
And no matter how angry or pissed off I might be at Mark Waid or Geoff Johns or Grant Morrison or Greg Rucka at any given moment, we shared that. We were in the trenches together. And that's never going to go away.
So if somebody calls me up and asks me to say something negative about Grant Morrison or one of those guys, it's not going to happen. I was in a foxhole with them.
There was an enthusiasm with 52 that I have never encountered on another project I've worked on. I don't know what Grant or Geoff or those guys are like now - I don't stay in touch with them that much - but I've never worked with a more generous field of creators in my entire career.
I saw them at their f***ing best. And that's something I'm really grateful for. It's rare that you land on a project that works that well.
Nrama: They followed that up with another weekly, Countdown. You were involved with that too?
Giffen: Yes, because I forgot the prime rule, and that is that, once you go, "Oh, we're done with 52," everybody was exhausted. Everybody was exhausted. And the others said, "No way, I'm not doing another weekly. I'm wiped out." But like an idiot, I said, "OK, fine, I'll continue on Countdown."
A lot of the stuff that went right with 52 went wrong with Countdown. And that's all I'm going to say on the topic, because I'm not here to paint targets on people or whatever.
The magic that was there with 52 was not there with Countdown. End of story.
Nrama: Let's talk about Blue Beetle. You got brought back to the concept partly because, I assume, you were associated with Ted Kord. And you're back on Blue Beetle now with "Rebirth." But it seems like, with Jaime's creation, you didn't just want to do what you did before - you wanted to do something new. Do you feel like you're often being pulled toward visiting old characters, even though you're striving to create new?
Giffen: Yeah. Yeah.
Nrama: Does it frustrate you at all that everybody wants to see Booster and Ted again?
Giffen: It doesn't frustrate me. Everyone's always talking about "blue and gold," "blue and gold," and my attitude has been, well, it's time has passed.
If somebody comes around with a great idea for blue and gold, go for it. I don't feel any proprietary claim on these characters.
Now, with Jaime again, I'm telling different stories.
I know this is going to break the heart of so many comic book fans out there, but with Jaime, I was called by Dan DiDio. And he said, "I want a new Blue Beetle." And a majority of what was in that original series when we introduced the new Blue Beetle came from Dan.
He called me up and was enthusiastic. A lot of his ideas were good, and a lot of them were implemented. I'd even say that, for the first couple months we were on the book, he steered the book.
Nrama: What is it with you and Dan? I know you worked quite a bit with Shannon Denton on different projects, and you've obviously had a long relationship with J.M. DeMatteis. I know you like working with Howard Porter. Now you have this thing going with DiDio, from O.M.A.C. to the stuff you're doing soon on Kamandi Challenge. When you find someone, you stick with them?
Giffen: I don't know. I approach each job with the same attitude, and that is, we're in this together. It's a team. And if we can work together again, even better.
Most of the time, I work with Scott Kolins or Howard Porter. Those are guys I know. They know me. We like working together.
But I like working with new people too. Like Bilquis Evely on Sugar and Spike. She was a complete revelation. It was like working with an old pro. It was fantastic.
Nrama: OK, let's switch gears for a minute. You told me once that you died.
Giffen: Yes I did. Twice.
Nrama: You've been in the business a long time. Did you ever have any regrets, personally - all the hours you put into this stuff, the disagreements you've mentioned that you've had with DC. And I know your wife recently passed away. Do you wish you hadn't put in so much time?
Giffen: Not at all. I look back on my comic book career and I think, "That's what I wanted."
There were high points. There were low points. But even the low points were OK with me.
I've wanted to do this since I was eight years old, and I've spent my life doing this. I consider myself one of the luckiest guys in the world - the fact that I'm still called. I'm not just doing the convention circuit hoping someone will notice me. I've had a lucky career.
And a lot of that luck has to do with the people who are around me. I'm not one of these people who is going to say, "I did it all by myself!" No, I didn't do it all by myself.
A lot of comics, a lot of the jobs I've had, come from the faith shown in you by the people who give you the job - be it Dick Giordano, or Jenette Kahn, or Dan DiDio, or Joe Quesada, or Andy Schmidt.
That's a big part of it, because after that, it's all performance. You do it. Or you don't.
I've been lucky. I've been really, really lucky.
I don't regret anything in my career.
I'll tell you something else: When I dropped dead, it was in my cardiologist's office from a cardiac arrest. So the timing was perfect.
And after all the hospital and the valve being put in and all like that, I think maybe my wife Anna called Dan DiDio and told him what was going on, and he said, "OK, fine, I'll spread the word around. Just, you know, stay in touch."
And I spent a couple of months recuperating. And then I thought I was ready again.
And I thought, here we go, I'm back to square one. I'll be like the new guy again. No – not just the new guy, but a new guy who makes you think, "Oh him? He has a tendency to die."
And so I called Dan, and Dan said, "OK, I'll spread the word."
And I thought, what do you mean spread the word?
I found out later on that Dan DiDio didn't just shove me aside and replace me. He set me in stasis. And the editors were told, we'll do fill-ins and stuff like that. But when he comes back, he comes back.
So when I came back, I just slid right back onto my books again. And that's another thing the Dan DiDio haters are going to despise. When I had this trouble, he stood up for me.
Same thing when Anna died. I got the time that I needed off. And then when I said, "OK, I'm ready again," I was slid right back into the fold.
I don't recommend dying. But it certainly opened my eyes to the people around me.
Nrama: Do you ever talk to the younger guys at DC? Do you get asked for advice or anything? Or are they too busy for the old guy's advice?
Giffen: I've never really given it much thought. I'll sit down with somebody and talk shop. We all love that. But to sit down and say to a guy, "Oh, here - from my experience is what to do." Really? No.
I recently got to know Tom King. I've read Tom's stuff. He was one of the new guys coming in. I thought he was a talented guy. I figured if I ever met him, I'd shake his hand and say "Hi," but I would never think I need to give advice.
But I went to the Suicide Squad moviepremiere thing that DC had in New York, which was a mistake, because I'm not good at those functions.
But I met Tom there, and we sat down and talked for a while, and I was about five minutes into the conversation with him when I realized, we're talking shop! I had not talked shop in years.
When we were done talking, he walked away and I thought, it would never had dawned on me to do that. If somebody said, you want to sit down and talk shop? I might have had a couple names - the older guys - who I'd want to sit down and talk shop with. You know, people I'd done it with before. But to have this guy, you know, who's new, who's got such a great grasp of where his position is in the comic book industry, talking about he's taking over Batman and just storytelling approaches and new villains and how timely it should be.
I mean, just talking about the nuts and bolts of comic books. It would have bored a fan to death. But it was kind of an experience for me.
These new guys coming in are no different than I was, or George Pérez was, or anyone else was when they first came in. You still talk about the same things. Not all of them, I'm sure. But you still talk about the same things. You're still concerned about the voice you're putting forth in the book, how to do something different with the character without violating the basic core of the character.
I'll admit that, there was a time when I looked at the new guys and thought they were a bunch of prima donnas. But they're not. I was wrong.
Nrama: What are you into besides comic books?
Giffen: I'm a football fan, because it's the only sport I can understand. I can understand football. I get what's going on.
Basketball? The squeaky sneakers drove me right out the door. And that's the truth.
Baseball? I've always said, if you want to make the game interesting to me, hit the runner with the ball to get him out.
Nrama: Who's your team?
Giffen: The Jets! I'm a Jets fan! Which says a lot about me, I guess.
Nrama: And you've got an extended family?
Giffen: Yes, I do. My son's still around. My daughter. My granddaughter. I've still got family around, so it's not like I'm completely isolated or whatever.
It's going to sound really cliched. Shit happens. And you deal with it.
Nrama: Does your family understand what you've accomplished in comic books?
Giffen: My daughter grabs everything I do. She's got her basement filled with stuff I've done.
I don't own a single comic I've done. They come and I flip through them, and then I either give them to my daughter or I give them away. I adopted that awhile ago.
I can remember carrying boxes full of my Justice Leagues with Marc DeMatteis and throwing them in my neighbor's wood chipper.
It's not disrespect for the industry. It's just that I don't want to be the guy who spends his career after a certain point looking back at what he did.
I always hear that Bruce Springsteen song, "Glory Days": I never want to be that guy.
Every project I take, to me, is a new challenge or almost like a dare for the company - "Here! Make this work!" And I don't want to be trapped in the past. When I'm talking to Dan and I want to do a book, and I'm pitching it to him, it may be a character that's familiar, but nine times out of 10, the circumstances surrounding the character are not familiar.
I had a great career. I still appreciate the books I've worked on, but I don't have copies of them laying around.
For me, it's like, "what's next?"
What's next? Where's the next thing I can do? How do I keep it interesting?