Tom King has a tough time choosing a "dream project" for his future, because in the three years he's been working in comic books, he's already achieved a couple of his personal dream projects as he's writing Batman and Mister Miracle.
But the road to this level of success wasn't easy, as King transitioned from working as an operative in the CIA (see the first half of our interview for details on that) to being a writer again.
In the second half of our two-part interview, King continues the story of how he started writing comic books (thanks to being noticed by Vertigo Comics co-founder Karen Berger) and what he credits for taking his career to the next level.
Newsarama: Tom, you were in the CIA for several years, as you detailed earlier - or as much as you could, anyway. Before the CIA, you had been planning to go to law school, potentially giving up on writing. What changed? What got you back to writing?
Tom King: I had gotten out of comics. I think a lot of people in my generation had this gap where we fell off in the late '90s, around when the Image boom started to peter out. And then we came back in the early 00s. Now, I have gaps in my collection because I was interning - I read comics there - but I mean, I wasn't like a Wednesday warrior kind of comics reader until I went to Iraq and my mother sent me a care package full of comic books.
Nrama: So this was the early 00s.
King: Yeah, I started getting into comics again around 2004 or 2005.
I hadn't read them in a while. And suddenly, this was Brian Michael Bendis and this was Mark Millar and this was Brian K. Vaughan and Warren Ellis - this whole generation of the 00s where you're just like, whoa! It wasn't difficult what they did, but they did it so well. They took these ideas of their youth - of comics - and took them seriously. And then as they took them seriously, they became dangerous.
I was so impressed by all that stuff, and so inspired by it.
I started reading everything I could get my hands on.
And also part of that - a big part of that - was podcasts had just sprung on the scene.
Again, I had grown up alone. I had never, until I was in my mid-20's, I had never talked to someone who knew comics on my level - not to say I was, like, a genius or anything. But I could name 15 versions of Alpha Flight. And I'd sort of hidden my nerd from people.
So when I first turned on a computer and found out what a podcast was - and I listened to things like iFanboy and Around Comics and WordBalloon and Comic Geekspeak, it was the first time I'd heard people talk about comics at the level that I thought about comics. And it was such a revelation to me. And I just couldn't consume enough of those. It was like you had been in the desert for a long time and suddenly you're drinking. It's this idea that, "whoa! I'm not alone! There's a community out there!"
Nrama: Well, and for me, it took it a step further. Not only did I find out there were other people out there, I got to hear the voices of the creators. It got me thinking about the process and the stories and everything. But then…you already knew writers and editors, so...
King: No, 100% that was a big influence to hear those guys. I remember listening to, like, Jason Aaron when he was still working on, what was it, The Other Side, the Vietnam book, and listening to these guys on their first interview. And Robert Kirkman when he was, like, nothing - like, nobody knew what The Walking Dead was. And Rick Remender when he was still an inker….
Yeah, I started feeling like, I really want to do this again. I started getting eager. The bug was struck.
I remember listening to Bendis on WordBalloon where he was like, "Life's too short to wear a tie every day." And I was like, yes!
I really wanted to try to be a writer.
But I still saw myself as career CIA at that point, but I was starting to get the bug.
Nrama: When did the transition from CIA to writing happen?
King: I came back to the states in 2007-ish, and I got a job in Washington - a good job where I was doing what I always wanted to do, which is sort of help stop 9/11 kind of thing, the next 9/11, working with the best people in the world.
And my wife got pregnant. We were going to have a kid - our first kid.
And it just became obvious to me that I couldn't be the father I wanted to be and the CIA officer I wanted to be. I think it's possible to do those jobs, but I just couldn't do it. I think people can. Just not me. If you wanted to be a great officer, you had to be available 24/7, you had to work 18-hour days. And I wanted to do all that stuff. But I also wanted to be there for my kid.
I grew up without a dad, and I didn't want my kid to go through that. You know, how you're always rebelling a little bit against your youth.
And my wife - she's a lawyer. And so we were talking about child care and all that. And I was like, what if I took a year off and I took care of the kid…and then at night I wrote?
I still wanted to be a writer. And we thought that was the craziest idea, but as it got closer and closer it just became more and more real. I was like, I think that's what I want to do.
I remember thinking…maybe I let it go - that life. I could have been a writer. I could have been good at it.
But I hadn't written anything! I hadn't even written a short story. But somehow I had this absurd thought.
Nrama: Did your first book - I mean, I am going to guess that you had an actual first book you wrote that is in a drawer somewhere, because I think most writers do.
King: That's true! My first book is called Carry the Three. It's definitely in a drawer and it's terrible. I never sent it to anybody. My wife read it, but nobody else.
I really liked writing. But two things happened, basically. Number one, I was listening to those podcasts and I listened to Brad Meltzer specifically on a podcast - because I had no idea how to break in. I remember I would Google comic book sites and look for submissions and stuff. But you go to Marvel and it's like, "We are never taking submissions unless you're already a professional." Then you go to some little company like IDW and it'd be like, "Nothing superheroes ever!" And I was like, there's no way to break in!
And I would look for editorial gigs. Maybe I could get in the door that way? But I was like, I'm not qualified. When you're a CIA officer, you're qualified to recruit terrorists. It wasn't really apropos for editing books.
So I listened to Brad Meltzer. And he was a DC guy, and he'd worked on the Hill. And what he did to get into comics was he wrote a novel, and the novel got published and was a success. And then he presented that novel to the comic book company, and that was his opening.
I decided that's the track that seemed most likely to me. So I literally copied Brad Meltzer's career. [Laughs.]
Nrama: When you said you were going to be a lawyer, I immediately thought of comic book writers who are lawyers - including Brad. There are a few people who are lawyers and writers. It's interesting.
King: Yeah, Charles Soule is one. There's a few out there.
Nrama: Yeah, and you know, I think Brad has a first book in a drawer somewhere that nobody's allowed to see.
King: That's probably true.
Nrama: And as you're writing, you're a stay-at-home dad?
King: Yes! I became Mr. Mom.
Nrama: That's almost the plot of a movie, isn't it? A guy from the CIA becomes a nanny or something like that…
King: Yeah, literally, over a weekend, Friday to Monday, I went from a CIA officer to changing diapers and putting the kid in a Bjorn and going to the playground and hanging out with all the nannies. I was the only dad - everyone kind of gave me strange looks because of our sexist society. [Laughs]
And then I would - first, I had to teach myself to write. That took a little while. I don't know if you saw Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey…
Nrama: Of course.
King: I think about that all the time. There's this scene at the end where they're like - for two movies, they were like, "We're going to be the Wyld Stallyns! We're going to be the greatest band ever!" And they get on stage and they don't know how to play. [Laughs] That's exactly what it is to start to write. It's like you feel like you have great taste 'cause you're a great reader, but then you try to write and you can tell your stuff is sh*t.
Nrama: Yeah, you're a really good critic of your own bad writing.
King: Right. So I went to Borders, when Borders still existed, and I bought the entire shelf on how to write books. And I read them all. I did it methodically. I spent three weeks on learning grammar, because I felt like I didn't know how to use a comma and a semi-colon and all that sh*t. And then I moved forward to how to write dialogue, how to write plot and all that stuff.
I just read book after book after book teaching myself how to do it.
Nrama: But I'm sure you were combining it with stuff you picked up as an intern at Marvel and DC.
King: Yeah, and combining that with, you know, going to war a few times, and I put it all together to write something.
I'd take care of the kid during the day. Then after the wife went to sleep - so about midnight - I'd start and I'd write between midnight and 3:00 every day. That was my schedule. Midnight and 3:00. A page a day.
Nrama: And you finally did sell one.
King: I did. I sold one.
Nrama: Was A Once Crowded Sky your only published novel?
King: Yeah. I sold it to Simon and Schuster. I thought I was big time again. I got an advance. The first thing the wife and I did was get a cleaning service to clean the toilet - to save our marriage. [Laughs]
Then we went through the whole editing process. And you know, it takes a whole year to do that stuff. And you get your book published and you think you're the best writer in the world. And I got some good reviews. And then things flopped. It was a big old bomb.
I was a famous writer for one day. I remember it very well. The A.V. Club came out and said it was like the next Watchmen, or something as good as Watchmen or something like that.
And on Amazon, you can watch your sales go up and down, literally by the minute. So I watched my sales on Amazon go souring up, and they reached kind of…you know, it was like a top-thousand book.
And then I just watched them go back down. You know, it went down to 500,000th, then to 1,000,000th.
Nrama: Ouch. But now you have the book in hand, you can approach comic book companies?
King: Yeah, it was a little slower than that. I wrote my next book because I thought I could sell another one. And that one wouldn't sell - no one would buy my second one because my first one flopped.
My first novel as about superheroes. My second novel was more about the war stuff.
I knew because of all the podcasts and from reading sites like Newsarama - I didn't know how to market to the book public, but I knew how to market to the comic book public. I listened to, like, 17 things on how to market your book.
So I started going to comic cons - local, like stuff that was in a fire station near my house, to bigger ones, as big as San Diego. I would get a table, pay for my own table, and hand sell my book.
Nrama: It's about superheroes, so this is your market.
King: Yeah. It had some pictures in it. [Laughs] The great Tom Fowler had done some awesome interior art for it. It was about a bunch of superheroes who lose their powers, so when they lose them, it goes from being a comic book to prose. It's a little post-moderny. So it had some pictures.
My little gimmick was I had free refrigerator magnets. I'd give you a free magnet, and then you'd maybe stop at my desk and I'd pitch you on the book. And I just pitched that book over and over and over again, just trying to sell physical copies of it.
I used to do 13 or 14 comic conventions a year.
Nrama: Wow. Surely you had another goal besides selling books. You knew you could write comics, right?
King: Yeah, I was making nothing re-selling the books. I was buying them from Amazon for $14 and selling them for $15. So I'd make less than a dollar each book.
Nrama: So this was basically for you to be at a comic con and maybe meet someone.
King: Yeah, it was me trying to meet someone or trying to get the book in someone's hand. It was a business card game. I'd call the whole comic con, if I could get an assistant editor from IDW's business card, a huge success.
Warren Simons from Valiant came up to desk and was like, "Oh, I'm interested." And I celebrated that.
So yeah, it was meeting editors. Doing the freelance dance, I called it - just trying to get your book in the right hands.
I lasted two years doing that - dragging my books in big suitcases.
I went to Comic Con International: San Diego in 2014.
And Cliff Chiang, who I knew, and he was supposed to be the artist on my book before he got Wonder Woman, he restarted my career because I was like, "Cliff, I got these nice reviews" - I didn't tell him about the sales - "for my book, and I was wondering if there's a way to write comics?"
And Cliff gave me, because he was working at DC, he gave me a list of, like, maybe seven editors. And he said, yeah, just email them and drop my name so they know you're not a crazy person.
So I wrote to seven DC editors. I'd change it for each one. If they were the Green Lantern editor, I'd be like, "Oh, I love Green Lantern!" And for Batman, "I love Batman!" [Laughs.] I got a few responses. I remember Joey Cavalieri - he probably doesn't remember this - he wrote to me just to say "thank you and no thank you," which meant a ton to me.
Karen Berger of Vertigo was the only one who responded - probably because I interned at Vertigo or maybe because of the war stuff - she actually said, "Yeah, send me your book." And she actually read it. And she called me and said, "You want to get together for a meeting?"
And that's how it all started.
Nrama: You're in very good company, with your career started by Karen Berger.
King: I know! I just had a meeting with her - she's so nice. I can't even tell you. I saw her in San Diego and told her, I owe my career to you. You took me off the scrap pile. I mean, like you said, to be on the list of people Karen's discovered - it's like my best brag, to be like, "yeah, I'm one of those people… the Neil Gaimans and the Morrisons and the Garth Ennises." She may not have discovered Alan Moore, but she made his career, you know?
Nrama: What was your first comic book? Was it something you pitched to Karen?
King: I met with Karen and I thought it was going to be, "let's get coffee so I can see if you're a crazy person." But instead she came to my table in Artist's Alley and asked me to pitch her a series. I had nothing prepped.
And so I pitched her something off the top of my head. It was terrible. And she looked at me like – you could just see it was terrible on her face as I'm pitching it. And she's like, "OK. Let me see if I could have you talk to one of my assistant editors." Probably just to get rid of me.
And she handed me off to Mark Doyle, one of the genius editors in comics. And we did the story together with Tom Fowler, for a little anthology called Time Warp. It was a little eight-page story. That was my first comic.
I still like it. It got really good reviews. I still remember that. It was about Hitler - it was a story of, what if a time trapper, a person came back from the future and killed Hitler? And instead of telling it from the point of view of the time traveler, it told it from the point of view of Hitler's sister who watched him get killed as a kid and didn't realize why this was going on.
I'm actually really proud of that story. I read it recently. And Tom Fowler drew the crap out of it.
Nrama: So did that open doors for you?
King: Not as many as I'd hoped. Mark was like, that went well. "Pitch us a series." I was like, "OK, what kind of series?" And he was like, "Crime." I was like, "OK." And I pitched a crime series - it was supposed to be the next Scalped kind of thing. It was good. Vertigo approved it, but it didn't make it. I think it got to Dan DiDio, and Dan's like, "Who the hell is Tom King? No." [Laughs]
I was kind of on my last rope. I had one eight-page story. I had a book that had been published two years ago. I basically had nothing.
And that was when I first started working on Sheriff of Babylon. I didn't want to write about the war, but I was so desperate. I mean, I had to feed my kids, you know?
So I pitched Sheriff to both my literary editor and to Mark Doyle at the same time. They both said yes. And while it went through the process of becoming a comic book I wrote it as a novel. Again, it got to Dan's door, and Dan said, "Who's Tom King?" and rejected it again. [Laughs]
I was fortunate enough that Mark got promoted to be head of the Batman group. And Grayson was being redone into this sort of spy thing.
Nrama: And spies are right up your alley.
King: Spies are right up my alley. I think Mark wanted me to write it, and then Katie Kubert, who was an assistant editor on that book at the beginning, wanted Tim Seeley. And the compromise was to get us to co-write it.
I think normally, in that situation, the two people would fight. But then Tim and I just became the best, best friends and brothers. And that's how Grayson started.
Nrama: Is your mother still around?
King: No, my mother passed away during that period when I was selling books to everyone.
Nrama: Oh, bless her heart. I was going to say, so you finally showed your mom you could be a writer. But then, you did. She saw her with a book.
King: Yeah, she saw me publish a book. It's funny, when I made that decision, she thought it was the craziest thing. But she had moved to Virginia. She had retired by then. And she was like, "I'm going to come over to your house, and you're going to god-damn write! I'm going to make sure you're not slacking off!"
Nrama: Plus she had a grandkid to visit.
King: Yeah. So yeah, my mom at least got to see my first novel.
And my grandmother who helped raise me, she passed away recently too, but she got to see – she watched live that thing we did when they announced I was the Batman writer. She watched it live. So they got to see some of the success.
Nrama: So now, when people come over, do you take down the posters from your wall?
King: [Laughs] I still feel it's kind of weird to say, "I'm a comic book writer." I live in DC and everyone kind of has the same job. We're all lawyers and we all work for the government. It's such a weird environment, currently, obviously.
But I feel sort of proud. I'm a comic book writer. It's funny, you know, my mother-in-law, who doesn't have an ounce of nerd in her, is just so excited by the fact that I write Batman, because she'll see an article about me in the Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal or something. And that means so much to me.
It's different now - being a nerd is different now. I mean, when I was a kid, watching Star Wars was crazy. Now there's not a person in the world who isn't a Star Wars fan. There's a Star Wars land at Disneyland, you know?
There's a complete flip that happened.
Nrama: If you're at a dinner with lawyers and you have to say "I write comics," probably the best character to say you write is, "I write Batman."
King: It is easy. They're like, "The Batman?" And I'm like, yeah, that's the one. That is a good name to drop.
Nrama: But you had a ways to go between Grayson and Batman. Was there a turning point, do you think?
King: Vision was the big game-changer, in all honesty, the first issue or two of Vision. That was the one that changed my career.
I mean, Grayson was a big hit, and I had done some artsy stuff - like, my first issue was backwards … Anyway, it was going well. And Omega Men came out, but then Omega Men got canceled pretty soon after. But then it got un-canceled, which helped. But between those two times…
Vision came out. It hit some nerve in people. I had the right team - Gabriel Hernandez Walta and Jordie Bellaire and Clayton Cowles and Wil Moss. They were making me look really good.
That was the big career change, when people said, oh, Tom has another gear that he can shift into.
Nrama: How did Will find you?
King: He reached out to me through my public fan website and was like, "Hey Tom, do you want to do something for us?" And I was thinking, since I was doing Grayson, he was going to say Winter Soldier. But he was like, "Vision!" And that's how it started.
Nrama: You write such different type stories. I feel like maybe you have a style, if I read your work across genres, but you can really switch it up. Do you think you have a certain style?
King: There's a thin line between "style" and "writing tics." So… I don't know.
Nrama: Dream project going forward?
King: I think I'm working on my two dream projects. Mister Miracle was a dream project. Working with Mitch Gerads on this thing, where DC has basically said to us, you know, here's as much room as you want. Be as ambitious as you want. Try to do a book as good as the best DC's ever done. We're not saying you can do it, Tom, but just try.
Mister Miracle is a dream project.
And working on Batman. I mean, I'm the luckiest writer in comics. He's the best character in comics. And I work with such great - with David Finch and Mikel Janin and Clay Mann and Joelle Jones.
I'm living my dream. I don't really have a dream beyond the one I'm in.