Interview: Peter David: An Apropos Conversation
by R.J. Carter
Published: August 14, 2002
I've always said that if I ever had the opportunity to interview Peter David, I would have to open up with my "Peter David Story." This is it:
It was at some time in the latter 1980s. The Chicago convention was still called a Comic-Con, and it was still held in the hotel near O'Hare airport. It was the year of the Image Comics tent, the company's debut at the convention.
I was in the atrium, standing in line and clutching a handful of my favorite Incredible Hulk issues, waiting to get Peter David's name scrawled across the front page of each.
At the head of the line was a young man who, by sad circumstance or chance, possessed some form of mental handicap. He had his guardian with him.
He also had -- quite possibly -- every single comic Peter David had ever written. A huge, daunting, mile-high veritable stack-o-comics. Groans went up at the back of the line, as some despaired of ever reaching Mr. David.
Peter signed the first ten books in the stack, then took the next person in line.
Then he signed the next ten books in the stack, and took the next person in line.
By the time I had reached a position at the front, every book the young man had brought was signed, and the fellow was quite the happy lad.
That event has stuck with me for more than a decade, and is always the first thing I think of whenever I go to a convention, only to discover I need a second ticket to get in to see a creator, and am limited to two or more items (and no time for discussion, please). I'll whittle down whatever I thought to bring to the requisite items, get my second ticket out, and say, "Peter David would never do this."
And then I'd tell my "Peter David Story" to everyone in line. Again.
Peter David is, quite possibly, the hardest working writer in comics today, producing such books as Dark Horse's hit, Spyboy, Claypool Comics' Soulsearchers & Company, and DC's Young Justice and Supergirl. Toss in the occasional Star Trek prose novel and his latest tome, Sir Apropos Of Nothing, and one wonders when the man sleeps. I was fortunate to steal some of Peter's writing time for a lengthy telephone conversation.
Let's start with a little bit of history for the readers who are unfamiliar with your work (both of them). You began working in comics at Marvel, and I believe the legend is that you came in through the mail room?
(Laughs). No, no. I was the Assistant Sales Manager. I worked for Carol Kalish, and I was involved in the distribution of comic books out to comic book shops. At that time, we dealt with about seventeen different distributors. This was back in the days before there was, you know... one.
Eventually I became Sales Manager, and Carol was promoted. During that time, I started writing on the side. Slowly, the writing started to take off, and I realized that I could actually make a living doing it. So I quit my day job, as the saying goes, and became a full-time writer.
When you first started writing, was it with comic books or novels?
It was pretty much concurrent. I had a Bachelor's degree in Journalism, so I had been writing for a bit before I changed my professional track and went into sales. So I did have writing experience.
I sold a novel before I wrote any comic books, but the novel didn't come out until eighteen months later. By that point, I had comic books published, since they have a considerably shorter lead-time.
The first novel to come out was called Knight Life, which is going to be reissued next year by Penguin Putnam, and I've updated it. The original book I wrote some thirteen years ago, and I've grown somewhat as a writer (I like to think.) So I worked out a deal with Penguin Putnam that they were going to bring it back into print, but I was going to go back into the manuscript and do more work on it, to bring it more up to snuff with what I think I'm capable of doing.
One of the things that I've discovered in going over the manuscript in such detail was all the places I had cut corners in order to tell the story -- because I didn't have a storytelling technique, or because I was lazy, or I just didn't know how to do it right. It's interesting, because the original manuscript of Knight Life was 65,000 words. The revised version is 95,000 words. The publisher was so pleased with the final manuscript that they decided to release it in hardcover. That will be out in July of 2002.
What was the first comic book you wrote, and how did that come about?
Spider-Man. Jim Owsley was the new editor on the Spider-Man books, and Jim was something of a maverick.
Jim was the Assistant Editor for Larry Hama. Most of the time, when people came into the office to talk to Larry, if Larry wasn't there, they wouldn't give Jim the time of day. They'd go, "Oh well, I'll come back when Larry's here," and they'd just turn around and walk out.
If I needed information, and Larry wasn't around, I had no hesitation turning to Jim and saying, "Well, maybe you can help me out." I treated him like someone who was perfectly capable of doing his job, instead of just blowing him off if Larry wasn't around. For that matter, if there were times when Jim needed something -- some comic books set aside, or something like that -- I would always make sure to attend to it. In short, I treated him like a guy.
Well, Jim was promoted to Editor and was given the Spider-Man books. All of a sudden, all of the people who had never had time for Jim Owsley before came crawling out of the woodwork, going "Hey, Jim! How you doing, my buddy, my pal! You know, I've always wanted to write Spider-Man!"
Well, Jim had a long memory, and all these people who didn't have time for him, he now didn't have time for them.
In the meantime, in walks Peter from Direct Sales, and I say to him, "You know, I have an idea or two for a Spider-Man story." And Jim immediately says, "Talk to me! Tell me what you've got!" Because now, he's going to make time for the guy who made time for him back when he was an Assistant Editor.
Jim liked the story ideas I was pitching, and he assigned me to Spectacular Spider-Man, which caused all kinds of unholy ruckus among Editorial. Their attitude was, "Where do you get off hiring this guy in Direct Sales to write comic books? He's in Sales! If he had any talent, he'd be in Editorial. Since he's not in Editorial, he has no talent! Q.E.D."
Jim got a lot of flak over it, and it intensified over the year and a half that I was writing Spider-Man to the point where he wound up firing me off the book in order to placate his bosses.
But some months later, Bob Harras came by and offered me Incredible Hulk -- basically because nobody else wanted the book. I gave it some thought, and I figured, "Well, maybe I could write it for six months or something like that." One thing led to another, and twelve years later, that's the point at which I left the book.
You really turned that title on its ear. Before you had the title, the book was basically "Hulk wander into town. Hulk get mad. Hulk smash!" And by the time you were done, we had Bruce Banner suffering from a split personality before the gamma bomb, we had Bruce Banner suffering an abusive childhood...
Well, let's be accurate here, because I don't want to take credit. I did not introduce the concept of Bruce Banner having a tortured background as a child. All of that appeared in an issue of Hulk -- issue #314, I think it was--which was written by Bill Mantlo; although Barry Windsor-Smith has stated that he was the one who came up with the idea, and that he was the one who had originally developed it for Marvel and that they went and turned it over to Bill Mantlo. Now, the thing is, Bill Mantlo really is not in condition to discuss it, and all of the people who were there are either fired or don't remember, so I can't verify one way or the other. But it was written by Bill Mantlo, may be have been conceived by Barry Windsor-Smith.
My tweak on it was I believed that -- as a result of this childhood abuse -- Bruce Banner was a perfect candidate for Multiple Personality Disorder; the notion being that even if he hadn't been hit by gamma rays, sooner or later he still would have suffered from MPD, and that the Hulk was simply a gamma-irradiated manifestation of a condition that actually exists. It also explained, to my mind, why the Hulk had undergone a variety of changes throughout the years in terms of his personality and attitudes: we were seeing other personalities, just like your standard issue MPD. To me this was a concept rife with possibilities, and it was never really pursued after Bill introduced the concept in Hulk #314. Mantlo established in #314 -- possibly via Windsor-Smith -- that Bruce Banner was abused as a child. I'm the one who took it to the next step and said, "...and that childhood abuse resulted in him becoming a Multiple Personality Disorder." That subsequently led to the storyline in which the Hulk was merged, because that is, theoretically, how they deal with MPD.
You also mentioned -- and I don't know if this is in canon -- in the Incredible Hulk novel What Savage Beast that Bruce Banner was, for all intents and purposes, a shapeshifter. I never saw that concept show up in the comics.
Not really. What I did with What Savage Beast was I started at a specific point in the Hulk's timeline, and then went off in a different direction with it.
I knew there were some things in there that I never saw again in the series, things like the Hulk's son, and such.
That's a parallel universe Hulk, if you will. Although I decided I did like the idea of having Glenn Talbot's nephew showing up, so I grafted him over into the comic book. What I was considering doing for a while was bringing [Hulk's] son over into the comic book, establish that What Savage Beast had happened in a parallel universe, but having his son show up in this universe. That's what I was originally going to do in Hulk #450 to #452.
But that particular aspect of story wound up being nixed by Editorial at the last moment, so I wound up substituting the concept that it was a Hulk from the future. The Hulk met up with a future version of himself -- not The Maestro, but a step in-between. That was originally going to be his son. I think the story was a bit weaker on that basis. I wish I could have been able to go on with the way I was originally going to plan it.
Back in the 1980s, a bunch of artists at Marvel decided to form Image. It seemed to me that Marvel wasn't so much a jumping off point for these artists as Incredible Hulk was: there was McFarlane, there was Keown, there was Larsen. It seemed that if you could get a gig on Incredible Hulk, you were a candidate for Image.
(Laughs) Well, I hadn't thought about it that way. But Larsen didn't exactly have a "gig" on Hulk -- he did an issue. Dale Keown was not an Image founder, he was somebody who Todd McFarlane wound up into talking into leaving Hulk, by saying to Dale that Hulk wasn't going to do anything for his career, and wouldn't get him anywhere (which was kind of amusing, considering it sure didn't hurt Todd any).
But, what are you gonna do?
Was there ever an invitation extended to you in those days? Something like, "Hey, we're a bunch of artists. We need a writer on the team. How about it?"
No. No, because there was no interest in writers. Image, to a very large degree, sprang from the philosophy of "What do we need writers for? We're artists!"
The only way they would have been interested in me was if I could have drawn. They were not remotely interested -- at that point -- in having someone whose only ability was to write. Indeed, after Image was formed, they ran an ad for people that they needed. They said, "Image is now hiring," right? And they listed pencilers, inkers, letterers, colorists... this whole list. And somewhere below "custodial engineer" was "writer." It was sort of like, "custodian," "chief cook and bottle washer," "guy to shine our shoes," and then "writers." That simply wasn't where the emphasis was, because their feeling was that they would be able to tell the stories, and if they needed somebody to write dialogue, well then, fine, they hired somebody to write dialogue. But they wanted to tell their stories.
So on that basis, even if they'd wanted me to come in and dialogue somebody else's stuff, I wouldn't have been interested.
Somewhere along the path of your career, you managed to hook up with the folks at Pocket Books and the Star Trek universe. How does a writer get involved with a franchise like that? Did you approach them, or did they approach you?
They approached me, actually. The editor at the time, a guy named Dave Stern, liked my work on the Star Trek comic book that had been published by DC. So he approached me about writing for the novel line. Long story short, it's now a whole bunch of books later and two editors have gone [Dave Stern was followed by Kevin Ryan] and now John Ordover's there and I'm still chugging along doing the Trek novels.
I heard Gordon Purcell talking some time ago at a convention about the art changes that he was sometimes required to make on the Star Trek comic, as apparently Trek continuity is even more stringent than many comic book universes. Does that ever present any kind of an obstacle to the stories you want to tell?
In terms of continuity? Generally, I know the continuity, so the only way it's an obstacle is if I develop a story that conflicts with something that they're already planning. But since most of my stuff focuses on either Original Trek or -- at this point -- the New Frontier, there's really not much chance of overlap.
There are occasional continuity glitches. For instance, I wrote a Star Trek novel called Vendetta. If you look at that Star Trek novel, you will see that there is a disclaimer in there that says something to the effect of "Some aspects of Vendetta are purely the invention of the author, and do not reflect the Star Trek universe of Gene Roddenberry."
What essentially happened was, I submitted an outline, and initially the outline was approved, and then I wrote the novel and all of a sudden they started raising objections. Pocket Books said, "Too bad, you've already approved the outline." So the Roddenberry offices insisted that this disclaimer be put in, because Vendetta did not match up with the Gene Roddenberry Star Trek universe.
Would you like to know what was in Vendetta that didn't match up?
I was just getting ready to ask.
I had a female Borg in there, and I was told, "There's no such thing as a female Borg." And I said, "That's absurd! Are the Borg like aggressive Ascetic Jews, they only take the men and keep the women separate?" (Which would explain why they all dress in black...) I said, "They go around and assimilate entire planets -- you're telling me they never picked up a chick?"
We were told, "No, no nonono! There are no female Borg, at all."
Now, of course, this is before the Borg Queen. This is before Seven of Nine. As a matter of fact, I had a character in there who in some ways bore a resemblance to Seven of Nine. It broke me up when Voyager picked up this female Borg who had been assimilated, and they tried to take her and somehow reconnect with her human half. I was sitting there going, "Wow! What a great idea! Too bad I ALREADY DID IT and got slapped in the face for it." So I'm kind of hoping that the next time they go back to press with Vendetta, they'll remove the stupid disclaimer, because it's sure as hell moot.
So that's an aspect where continuity winds up eventually catching up with you, which is always a kind of gratifying thing.
I just got Imzadi for my birthday from a good friend of mine, and I noticed that, because the story deals with the Guardian of Forever, you said in the dedication, "This one has to be for Harlan." [Harlan Ellison wrote the Star Trek episode, The City On The Edge Of Forever which first introduced the Guardian.] This reminded me that you are also what you term an F.O.E., or Friend Of Ellison. What does that mean?
Some years back, a group of people decided that they wanted to start an organization called Enemies Of Ellison. Their stated goal was that they wanted to gather all kinds of negative stories about Harlan, and collect them into a slam book, which they then intended to publish posthumously.
I announced a group called Friends Of Ellison. And what I said was that there was no charge for joining Friends Of Ellison -- all you have to do is send in an anecdote about something good that Harlan had done for you: anything from a face-to-face encounter to some sort of impact his stories had on you. Anything. In exchange for sending this in, you would get the super-nifty "Friends Of Ellison" button. I designed a "Friends Of Ellison" button, and I had this sucker printed up (and I can tell you, they weren't cheap!).
Enemies Of Ellison decided to try to fight back. They put out a flyer... and they said that they were now changing their names to Victims Of Ellison, because that was more accurate (poor babies) because Harlan had been ever so mean to them. They were the victims here, not bad guys. And indeed, you could now get a button from them!
I got flooded -- FLOODED, I say -- with letters of support, all raving about what a swell guy Harlan was, from people like Robert Bloch: major heavy hitters. I collected them all together, made photocopies of them, and sent them Harlan and Susan, which was a terrific boost of morale for Harlan, just reading page upon page from people about how much they adore him.
In the meantime, Victims Of Ellison put out one edition of their newsletter, and claimed they had been so deluged -- DELUGED, I say -- with letters of vituperation about what a mean guy Harlan was, that they were going to shut down their entire operation because it was just going to be too much work.
On to Apropos. What can you tell us about the conception of Apropos -- not his violent, gang-rape conception in the book, but how he came to be an idea.
Apropos walked into my head fully formed at a convention called Mad Media Con in Wisconsin. A group of us had been sitting around talking about Arthurian legend, and for some reason I suddenly pictured in my head a king's court. I pictured guy after guy coming in and presenting himself to the king -- not necessarily Arthur, but "the king" -- as consideration for knighthood. And each of them would say things like, "I am Sir Lancelot of the Lake," or, "I am Sir so-and-so of such-and-such."
I pictured a guy walking in, and he had an infirmity from the very beginning: his right leg was lame and he walked with a staff. His hair was red and curly, his ears stuck out a little bit. He walked out fully formed in my head, and he said, "I am Apropos, of nothing."
I just liked the name. Maybe it was something in me from the old Warner Brothers cartoons, the ones with Bugs Bunny as a jester where they had knights with names like Sir Loin of Beef, or Sir Osis of the Liver.
I have no idea why I thought that was a good name, but I did. I liked the visual of the character in my head--he just seemed so clear to me. And I knew that he was a bastard in every sense of the word right from the get-go.
I have always wanted to do a story that really focused on an anti-hero. I had just read a couple of the George MacDonald Frasier books about Flashman. I was a fan of Flashman, I'm a fan of Black Adder from the British TV series. I wanted to do a character who was in that vein, someone who was a total rotter, and see if I could make him interesting and compelling for the reader.
And yet I was also intrigued by the notion of creating someone who, when faced with difficult situations, would, more often than not, do the right thing. Except he wouldn't do it out of compassion, he wouldn't do it out any sense of acting for the greater good, he would be doing it purely out of selfishness--or at least telling himself that, so you really get to wonder whether there was more to him than just his pure selfishness.
Many heroic journeys are not really voyages of discovery. They're supposed to be, but they're not. Because the hero kind of knows he's the hero going in. Not only that, but the reader knows he's the hero going in. I thought it would be interesting to do something along the lines of "Rosencrantz & Gildenstern Are Dead," something that focuses on someone who is nominally supposed to be a supporting character in somebody else's story, and who kind of realizes, outside of the box, that he is a supporting character in somebody else's story, and decides he doesn't like it, and he hijacks it. He says, "Screw this! This story is going to be about me! I'm much more interesting than this guy! I'm more deserving than this guy!"
What happened was, over the course of about a year, no matter what else I was doing, every morning I would write a couple of pages of Apropos, purely making it up as I went. I had an idea of where it was going to end, but not a great one. I knew the general parameters of what I was doing, but I was pretty much just making it up as I went. And I did that for the first two hundred pages of the manuscript.
It was at that point that I sat down and said, "Okay, now I've got to figure out how the hell I'm going to end this thing." I then worked out everything from about halfway through the book on from an outline, as I figured out what it was that I was doing. I had some basic set pieces in mind, but other than that, I wasn't sure.
Although, interestingly enough, the unicorn stampede was there from the get-go. I didn't know how, I didn't know why, but I always knew that Apropos and Entipy were going to be pursued by unicorns, just because I couldn't remember a story ever having been done with a unicorn stampede.
No, unicorns are always nice.
Yeah, the unicorns are always nice and gentle and sweet and benevolent. I wanted to have unicorns that were essentially wild animals. Excuse me, these things are animals! And they've got horns! Pointy ones, that can hurt you! I just liked the idea of a herd of a couple of hundred unicorns pursuing our heroes. So the unicorn stampede was always in there, and I was never entirely sure why it was, but it was.
You mentioned the hero's journey, which brings to mind Joseph Campbell's The Hero With A Thousand Faces. Apropos follows that outline nearly step by step, only taking each step with a decidedly wicked twist.
Which is pretty nifty, considering I haven't read The Hero With A Thousand Faces.
There's "The Refusal Of The Call," "The Meeting With The Mentor" (with Tacit and Umbrage.) "The Temptress" in Astel. "Atonement With The Father," "The Magic Flight." All of it's there -- and you've never read Campbell's work?
I've read Campbell's work -- I didn't read that one. I read the one that was essentially the transcript of his stuff on PBS. I've never read The Hero With A Thousand Faces.
(Laughs) You don't need to, apparently.
Nailed that sucker, huh? Good deal! One less thing to worry about.
You work on so many books--Soulsearchers & Company, Supergirl & Young Justice, Spyboy, the Spider-Man movie novelization... Where do you find the time for all of this, and how much of each day is spent actually writing?
It depends on the day. It depends if I'm on a roll. There will be times when I'm working and it gets to be about midnight and I just can't do it anymore, and there will be times when I'm on a roll when I look at the clock and it's 3 a.m.
So you do a lot of your writing at night?
I do some writing at night. I write during the day, but depending upon what it is, by 3 or 4 o'clock my kids are coming home and I've got to be daddy. Then pretty much after 9, 10 o'clock I get back to work.
One of the things that is almost a trademark in your writing is your ability to spin a pun. Second perhaps only to Spider Robinson, you fill your books with items that, maybe everyone will get it, or maybe only insiders will get it. Apropos is no exception, with elements like Queen Bea, and the Harpers Bizarre...
I had people telling me under no circumstances should I have the Harpers Bizarre in there. And I stood firm, and said, "No, I like that." I did take out some other puns. I had some knights' names in there that I took out, like Sir Vantes, that kind of thing. I took out some of the real wretched groaners, but I stood firm on the Harpers Bizarre.
I personally liked "Sir Umbrage of the Flaming Nether Regions."
Sir Umbrage of the Flaming Nether Regions! One of the reasons that I called him that was so that I could have one of the knights say to Apropos, "If you do not want the king to take offense, then you will have to take Umbrage."
Some of this stuff I don't think about until it hits me. I named the magic users "weavers" simply because I liked the notion that they wove magic threads together to create their magic. Then later on when I have a character talk about how she had her hair color changed, it didn't occur to me that that would be a "hair weave" until I got there. Which may prompt readers to think, "Oh my God, he named them weavers just so he could do the hair weave pun!" No, I called them weavers because I liked the idea of magic threads being woven together. The "hair weave" line was just an opportunity that presented itself.
My favorite weaver of the book has to be Ma Spell, who's a communication weaver, and who is introduced at the first point of the story where the readers get the idea that maybe there's more to Apropos than really meets the eye.
Absolutely -- because he can see the thread.
I'm anxious to see what you're going to do with that--as I'm sure you are, as well.
Well, I've got the outline for the second book. From this point on, my feeling is I'd better write these damn things with an outline. I'm not making this up as I go anymore, so I actually have written a whole outline for the next book, which, if and when it comes out, would be called The Woad To Wuin. If you look on the map [that prefaces Sir Apropos Of Nothing], Wuin is there. It's in the lower right hand corner. My lovely wife, Kathleen, did the map. She's not credited, which I'm hearing about, I can let you know that!
Woad is the blue clay that some more primitive tribes used for war paint and such. When you see Mel Gibson [in "Braveheart"] with the blue stuff, that's woad.
Any idea when we might see The Woad To Wuin?
Not a clue. Maybe next year, I'm not sure. I still haven't finalized the deal with Pocket Books. They only signed a one-book contract. (Note: It's out now! Read the review here at The Trades, then run out and buy your own copy!)
The funny thing is, the first time I heard that Pocket Books was interested in a sequel was when the interviewer from Publisher's Weekly told me that. She said, "So, I understand that you're working on a sequel." And I sat there and said, "I am? That's interesting. Where did you hear that from?" And she said, "Oh, the promotions woman at Pocket Books told me that." I said, "How interesting! Where did she hear it from?" She said, "The Editor." I said, "How intriguing!"
So now we're in negotiations for more books.