Sheriff of Babylon. Grayson. Omega Men. Mister Miracle. Heroes in Crisis. Vision. Batman. Strange Adventures. Rorschach. Human Target. Superman. Supergirl. All that and Elmer Fudd, too. What more introduction is needed? Let’s go!
First off, the basics…
Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): Writer
Your home base: Washington, DC
Substack: Everlasting Productions
Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: For someone like yourself who's written in prose and screenwriting, what's the specific appeal of comics for you as a writer?
Tom King: It’s twofold. Number one is, I grew up on comics. I was very typical of a super comic book fan— I couldn't play football or hoops or run quickly, but I could sit in a corner and read Avengers, and I did that for my entire childhood. I spent every dollar I had on comics. My grandfather would be like, “Will you help me build this fence?” And I'd think, “Okay, that's 20 comics.” [laughter] I thought of the world in terms of money for comics. Comics is my first, biggest love. I love the medium, and to this day, I go on vacation with my kids and I'm just sitting by the pool reading a comic book. Every night before I go to sleep, I'm reading a comic book. I'm not as much of a “Wednesday warrior” as I used to be—I'm too deep into it—but I'm still a graphic novel warrior where, once a month, I go and I pick up everything I can from my local shop. I just love the medium as a reader. To participate in it was always my childhood dream— this is exactly what I wanted to do when I was seven years old, and exactly what I wanted do when I was 20 years old, exactly what I wanted to do when I was 30 years old. And now that I'm 45, it's still what I want.
KS: What do you like about the actual work process in this medium compared to the others?
TK: Having worked in prose and screenwriting a little bit, it's much more fun than both of those. In prose, you have to describe things. In comics, people draw them for you. You don't have to describe how something smells or how something feels. Look, I'm terrible. I have no words for smell. I get there and I'm like, “It smells good.” [laughter] But Mitch [Gerads] and Clay [Mann] and Doc [Shaner] put all of that stuff in it. I just have to do the plot and the dialogue and the captions, which is what I like much more than the descriptive part of prose. In screenwriting, you don't have to do all that stuff, but it takes four people to make a comic, [whereas] in screenwriting, it takes four million people to make a movie, right? Every word you write is gonna be rewritten 72 times, and it's gonna be examined 152 times. And even when you succeed and get everything together, they're gonna put it in front of a random screening in the Valley, and some kids can be like, “I don't like that.” “Okay, we'll cut it.”
KS: The tradeoff in screenwriting being a larger set of eyeballs on your work.
TK: It's rewarding in the fact that billions of people see it, but it's less rewarding in the fact that you don't know how your contribution is gonna come out in the end. In comics, I write a comic, my editor approves it, my brilliant artist draws it, someone else brilliantly colors it and letters it, and then it goes out into the world. Four months later, there's something that exists. That is a story I told and that's not something that screenwriting can ever get close to.
KS: Going back to the Tom who calculated money earned in terms of how many comics it would buy, where were you getting your books back in childhood? Did you have an LCS or spinner racks or mail order? Maybe all of the above?
TK: All of the above. When I was nine, ten, it was spinner racks. We used to have in this country these bizarre bookstores that were also half video stores and were secretly porn stores—that's how they actually made their money. I grew up in LA and one of those was on every other block. It was a bookstore / video store, but primarily a pornography store. That's where they had the spinner rack. My mother went to the grocery store, I went to the spinner rack. When you're “spinner racking,” you just take what's given to you. You have no idea what's gonna be on there. Some of the stuff is from eight months ago, some of it is from today, it's completely random. So, when I first discovered a comic book store, it was about two and a half miles from my house. I'd ride my scooter—’cause I couldn't even ride a bike back then—through the streets of LA to get to Culver City. It was like going into Shangri-Lai. I was like, “Wait, you have back issues? I can fill in my collection?” When you first get into it, you believe that this is one story and that everyone just opened these windows. You wanna look through another window. That was such a joy. And the third thing you said…
KS: Mail order.
TK: When I figured out you could get comics monthly in the mail, I started asking for that for Christmas presents. I didn't like that, ‘cause you got the comics back in the day, like, a month after the shop. And they didn't even come with a bag and board, they were wrinkled up and sometimes the mailman would roll it up to fit in the mail stop roll. It was awful.
KS: At what point did you become aware of a writer's voice in comics? “I like the way so-and-so writes, and I'm going to look for so-and-so's titles.”
TK: It took me a while to get to that. In the early '90s, when this was all taking place, there was no comics community. That wasn't a thing. Comics were something you were ashamed of. It wasn't very different from going into that porn store— you didn't tell your friends you were into comics, you definitely didn't tell any of the girls you might have crushes on you were into comics. [laughter] I had to hide it from my older brother because he would laugh at me. It took me a while to learn that there was an artist, that there was a writer. All the stuff you could learn in two seconds from Wikipedia was not available. At first, I was following stories and I didn't realize… I remember Avengers #300, my first comic, with Walt Simonson writing. He jumps off, like, two issues later, but I had no idea. I was like, “Why did it change so much?” I had no idea there was a switch.
When I was a kid, every year I would take my two favorite comics and I would reread them at Christmastime. I'd go up in my bunk bed with Dark Knight Returns and a trade I had of Frank Miller's Daredevil. I had no idea they were by the same person! [laughter] I know that seems stupid ‘cause his name was on the cover, but I just did not know. Eventually, I started connecting names to things and figuring out, oh, I like this. Then, I started following writers. Roger Stern, both Simonsons, Len Wein, Steve Englehart.
KS: At Fanbase Press, our #StoriesMatter initiative endeavors to highlight the impact that stories can have on audiences of various mediums and about the way a reader can find an important story at just the right time. Was there a story you encountered in those younger reading days that really rang your bell?
TK: There's a lot. Watchmen hit me really hard. Dark Knight hit me really hard. Elfquest. But the thing that sticks out from my childhood—those things are more my teenage years than my childhood— was the “Under Siege” arc in Avengers, where the Masters of Evil capture the mansion and Captain America has to take it back. The idea that bad guys could win for a little while and push the good guys down to a point where they were utterly defeated and then they'd have to come back from that utter defeat and take back what was theirs… it very much appealed to me. That story came down like a ton of bricks on me.
KS: That's the second John Buscema/Tom Palmer era, with Roger Stern writing?
TK: Yeah, very much. It’s Avengers from the two-seventies [#270-277]. My first Avengers comic was #300, so I collect Buscema pages from that issue. I have four. So, if you're out there and you have one, just let me know.
KS: During the time when you were reading and collecting comics, what did your creative life look like? You said from age seven that you dreamed about being a comic book writer, but what kind of writing were you doing before it actually happened for you?
TK: My mother was an entertainment executive at Warner Bros. growing up. My father left when I was around seven, so we didn't see very much of him; we were raised by her. He wanted to become a novelist and never achieved it, and I think it left a sort of bitter taste in both his mouth and my mother's mouth. My mother was very much, “You will not be a writer like I was.” Again, she was on the business side at Warner Bros. and she's like, “Being a creative means you're a) crazy and b) playing the lottery. You'll be a doctor or a lawyer ‘cause that's how you succeed in life.” Then, my brother decided he wanted to be a musician, so I was her only hope. I was very discouraged; even young, I knew that being a writer was not a thing you were supposed to do. The thought of being a writer when I was a kid was like, “When I grow up, I wanna be a crack addict.” [laughter] It was not a good thing.
KS: Did you sign on for the doctor/lawyer plan?
TK: Yes, I eventually did sign on, but I managed to fool her a little bit. I was always good at school, so I could choose any [college] I wanted. I went to school in New York ‘cause that's where the comic book companies were. I went to Columbia because I wanted to work at DC and Marvel. And I did— I interned at Marvel and DC there, but then the comic industry collapsed. So, I planned on becoming a lawyer. I went to work for the Justice Department here in DC where I met my wife, who is a lawyer. We took the LSATs next to each other. I was all set to become a lawyer. I couldn't become a doctor because I'd always make mistakes.
KS: I think your saga is pretty well known among fandom, from working for the CIA, then writing a novel, then getting into comics and how those steps kind of unfolded. But where does the novel come into your thinking? Did you have a bunch of novels on a hard drive and you just finally let one out of the nest, or was this a sudden inspiration of “I'm gonna write a book?”
TK: I had this writing inside me that I wanted to scratch. I would start writing and then I would fail, and I would start writing and then I would fail. It was complicated because, in the CIA, you can't be a writer ‘cause I was undercover. You can't be in the press at all. You have to become an anonymous, boring person. And I had to pay bills so I couldn't quit my job and become a writer—and I actually really liked being in the CIA, I didn’t want to quit. But I would write for fun on the side, and I'd always treat the words very precious. I wanted to be F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway with a little Gore Vidal thrown in there. Then, I would write my two sentences. I'd be like [groan], “Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Vidal would all hate this!” [laughter] And I'd throw it away. When I was overseas, I read a book about early comic writers and how they wrote and then they threw it away. They wrote to pay a bill, right? They wrote this story, got 10 cents a word… what's next? They weren't trying to be Fitzgerald, they were just trying to make enough money to feed their family. For some reason, I decided that’s what I was gonna do— throw away the preciousness because that sounds like a fun job to just write and get paid for it and not worry. That was a breakthrough where I considered writing a novel again.
KS: Was A Once Crowded Sky your first after the breakthrough?
TK: I wrote a novel called Carry the Three which no one will ever see. It was about a guy who mathematically proves God exists. God, that's a 29-year-old's premise. [laughter] I was listening to Word Balloon [podcast] with John Siuntres. He was interviewing Brad Meltzer, who's now a friend of mine, and Brad's origin story was, “I was working for the government. I wrote a novel at night. I got that published. I showed that to comic book companies. I started writing comics.” I said, “I'm working for the government, I'll just do what Brad did!” So, that's exactly what I did. It wasn't anything more complicated.
KS: Did you know what to do next? You had a manuscript, but there are millions of those that never see the light of day.
TK: First of all, I did the thing that most creative people do, and this is a horrible secret which everybody knows: I cheated. But I did it in a way that you can learn a lesson from! I wrote this novel at night while I had my first kid. My stepmother— who's a very nice person, but we have never been very close— worked in book publishing. I called her. It was very hard to do, so awkward to ask for a favor. She got it in front of the agent John Silbersack, and John said, “I think I can sell this.” Two years later, a book existed. It was a long journey, but that's how I did it. I was on a slush pile and I got someone to say, “Hey, pick this off the slush pile.”
KS: Given that you liked your day job, did you look at that accomplishment as a fun one-off and now it was time to get back to real life?
TK: It was harder than that because I took a year off [from the CIA] and I was Mr. Mom. I was a full-time, stay-at-home dad. That was my job— I changed diapers and took the kids to the playground. I called it “My Life Among the Nannies.” We had a second kid right away—my daughter— which was surprising, so I was doing this with two kids. I couldn't go back to my old job. After a year, you have to decide if you're coming back and I was sort of in the process of it. I had to raise my cover, which meant tell people I was in the CIA, which meant I could not do my other job. My job was to be an undercover officer overseas. At that point I had no education. I had nothing I could fall back on. I mean, I had gone to college and I had gone to “The Farm” [Camp Peary in Virginia] where I had learned how to make one terrorist spy on another terrorist. But that didn't really translate to any sort of professional anything. There really was no fallback except to be a writer at that point.
KS: Meanwhile, you’re working in the least “nimble” writing format, as far as a time commitment to complete.
TK: Yeah. Unlike a comic book, a novel takes… from the time you submit it to your agent to the time it's published is, like, a two-year process. You have two years where you're not really writing the novel, so I wrote another novel while I was doing that just to be writing — and still taking care of my kids all day long. Then, I wrote a third novel in that time, all before I ever got published. I should say that my novel [A Once Crowded Sky] was a big flop. Nobody bought it. It got good reviews. I look at it now, I'm not sure I'm proud of it, but it exists. To me, it looks like someone learning how to write. I'm proud of that part of it. But if you think it's hard to sell a first novel when you're like an unknown, it's really hard to sell a second novel when you're a flop. That was a tough day when I had sort of that realization. “Oh shit, I'm a failure. Yeah, I'm a novelist, but I'm a failed novelist.”
KS: “I wanted to be Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Vidal… so naturally I wrote a superhero novel.”
TK: Well, that's what I knew. [laughter]
KS: Failed or successful, you were a novelist for all intents and purposes, so what clicked for you that you turned your attention fully to comics?
TK: Again, I was still on the Brad Meltzer plan. I wrote the novel to break into comics, which was getting to feel sillier and sillier as I got older and older. But since people weren't buying it in stores, I decided to hand sell it wherever I could. I went to cons to hand sell it and to make contacts in the comics community. I went to 13 or 14 cons a year for two to three years, buying my tables, dragging my books, — literally a duffle bag full of books. I would give out a free magnet. People would stop and talk to me. “Hey, want a free magnet? Can I tell you about my book?” That was my sales pitch. I pitched that book probably 5,000 times or something. I made 36 cents on each copy I sold. I bought them on Amazon for $14-whatever and sold them for $15. I made zero money. I lost money, but the point of the cons was that you would go and go and go and maybe you would get the card of a podcaster who would interview you. Or maybe, if it was a really great con, you’d get the card of an editor who you could follow up with and send an email to. I went to every place I could to find an editor, to find someone to pitch to.
KS: Did you get your book in the hands of anyone who you later knew professionally?
TK: I mean, I waited for three hours for Scott Snyder to give him a free book. I waited in line for Rick Remender to give him a free book. My first review of my novel… I'm gonna shout him out ‘cause he's a fantastic artist, but it was a bizarre moment. I checked Goodreads and was like, “Oh, someone read my book and reviewed it!” It was Bob McLeod. I’d given him a free copy and he trashed it! [laughter] I was like, “Bob, I gave you a free book! It's ok if you don't like it, but did you have to trash it?” My one review was, like, a one star from Bob McLeod.
KS: The conventional wisdom is that it’s easier to break in as an artist because an editor can spend three minutes looking at your portfolio, whereas with a writer, you have to hand them something that requires serious time to review. Aside from handing out the novel, how did you get somebody to seriously consider you for a writing gig in comics?
TK: This is why I owe Cliff Chiang everything. He was supposed to do the cover of my book and then had to back out ‘cause he got the [New 52] Wonder Woman gig. That's how long ago this was. But because of that, I knew him a little bit, and I saw him at San Diego again during the con circuit. I told him about my book, that it got some good reviews, and how do I break into comics? And Cliff — life debt to him— said, “I'll give you the emails of all the editors at DC Comics. You can use my name to show you're not a crazy person.” So, I emailed every editor at DC Comics: “Hi, I'm Tom King. I used to be in the CIA, I wrote a novel…” I probably emailed 12 editors and 11 of them ignored me. One of them sent me back a “Hey, let's have coffee at New York [Comic Con].” That was Karen Berger. Karen's still still working, but I’m her last discovery at DC.
KS: Cliff had interned at DC, right? That’s how he had all the contact info for you?
TK: Yes. I had interned at Vertigo back in the late '90s for college, when Cliff was there. He didn't know who I was— I was the guy at the copy machine. But at least there was some sort of background for Karen and I talking.
KS: Did she have an open assignment for you to try out on? What finally got some momentum going for you?
TK: That's how I thought it would go down, that it would be some sort of general coffee, let's talk about comics, but Karen did something different. We met in the lobby and she’s like, “Take me to your booth.” And if you know anything about cons, the booth only looks nice in the front. I'm generally a sloppy person, especially if my wife's not around, so I was like, “Oh, back to my booth? Oh no.” [laughter] I took her to my booth, we found two uncomfortable chairs, and she said, “Pitch me a series.” I had not prepped for this moment. I think she was most interested in the CIA stuff and in the fact that I had served in the war, I'd been in Iraq, in the Afghan theater. So, I made up a series on the spot and as I was pitching it to her, I could see she hated it and it was going nowhere. Honestly, I think maybe because I was an intern or because I had done this meeting or just because she wanted to get rid of me, she said, “Well, we have an anthology coming up. I'm gonna hook you up with an editor who you can pitch to. Come to the Vertigo panel afterwards, I'll introduce you. That was Mark Doyle, who later became an executive editor at DC. I pitched to Mark and got my first story.
KS: Was that pitch the thing that Karen didn't like?
TK: No, it was an eight-pager in a thing called Time Warp. It had to be a time story. You have eight pages to prove yourself, right? That's all you've got. Unlike my book, which I can throw under the bus, that eight-page story was really good. It was a cool concept and it worked. My career started from that eight-pager— when it came out, I got a lot of attention. Then, we were off to the races.
KS: Did you remember how to write a comic script from seeing them as an intern?
TK: Well, I had interned again at Marvel 10 years before that. My internship there was as Chris Claremont's assistant, and at the time he was something called “creative director.” His job was to read every comic script and comment on them, and then people would ignore his comments. If anyone knows Chris, he's not shy about his opinions, and my job was to read the same scripts he was reading and just sit there and listen to Chris say why they were all terrible. So, for six months in college, I read every single script that came into Marvel Comics. That ran the gamut from guys like John Byrne and Roger Stern, who were still writing Marvel style, to Kevin Smith who was starting to write comics and doing full scripts. Kevin Smith changed the entire game. So yeah, I'd read hundreds and hundreds of scripts.
KS: Speaking of writing scripts, the model that you're been working in lately is these 12-issue… they used to be called maxi-series, but contained series with beginning, middle, and end. Why is that the best model for the stories you want to tell?
TK: Well, the ones I'm working on now are probably the last ones. It’s not rocket science. When I was a kid, I loved monthly comics, they way they're always in the second act. But capital-L loved the minis— Dark Knight, Watchmen, the Mark Gruenwald Squadron Supreme, the Jeph Loeb-Tim Sale stuff, All-Star Superman. It seemed to me there were almost two tracks in comics; there's the sort of normal track and then there was the elevated track, which were people trying to take comics and turn them into literature. I loved that second track. When I first came into comics, that's what I very much wanted to do but I didn't think I'd be able to do. Coincidentally, I started on Grayson, which was a co-writing on an ongoing series that had a lot of… back there was so much internal politics over what you could write at DC. You had to change every issue. I got put on Vision and Omega Men and Sheriff and all three of those series could not sell 13 issues— so I turned them into 12! [laughter] No, Vision could have sold more. Vision sold a ton. But yeah, it’s just me following the model; I call it the 1986 model.
KS: When you sit down to plot out a Mister Miracle or Heroes in Crisis, do you outline one giant story and then do 12 individual outlines? How does it work from conception to breaking it down for the artist?
TK: I never write down my outlines. In Hollywood, you have to but for comics, you don't. I do a one-page pitch, which is usually the first issue. If you've read any of my first issues, they're always just the setup of the problem and the status quo and the big twist at the end. In my head, I do a very detailed outline of what this is gonna be, where it's going, where it's ending. I have this theory— it's stupid and nobody believes me that this works — that the stuff I forget is worth forgetting, and the stuff I remember is worth remembering. That's always the process: come up with the plot, write that first issue based on the pitch, have the whole thing in my head, and then go.
KS: And you have enough cache at this point that editors will trust you there.
TK: Yes. That comes from, you know, I won two Diamond Awards for sales. Supergirl is the best-selling graphic novel in the country as we speak, which is crazy, right? Sometimes, you have to convince editors [who] want it a certain way and be like, “I'd love to do it your way, that’s not how I write good comics. This is how I write good comics.” I should say that all comes with the second corollary, which is I am a deadline fiend. I hit deadlines. I'm never late with the script; I'm usually way far ahead. I try to write 12 issues at once, so I don't have editors who have no idea what's coming. That's a reason they'll trust me.
KS: One more process question before we hit the lightning round. If we list the artists you’ve worked with, it's a Murderers' Row of the best of the best in the business. Does anything look different on a page you’re scripting for, say, Joelle Jones versus Clay Mann?
TK: Nothing would look different in terms of how I write my scripts. For people who haven't seen them, they're full scripts. If you put Stan Lee on one side of the equation —“Jack, something about space!” — and that's the whole script, and then you put Alan Moore on the other side of the equation — “In the background, in the bottom quarter of the panel, I want you to draw a rat with four gray hairs, and the rat should make you feel icky, but you love them while you feel icky.” — I'm halfway in between. This is the panel. This is what's in the panel. This is the dialogue that's in that panel. It’s just very declarative sentences. “Panel one: Wonder Woman walking into a cave.”
KS: If not your scripting, how about your mental approach?
TK: I have a special power. I'm like Superman, but my power is stupid. I can't sing, I obviously can't draw, I'm a terrible cook. Pitching Karen Berger at cons, not my thing. The one thing I do well is, I can look at a comic book script and see what it's gonna look like when it’s drawn. It’s like that guy in The Matrix who can look at the code and actually see the world. When I'm writing a comic, I can see exactly what this artist I'm working with is going to draw, and I try to make the best comic as I can. I'm not writing a script, I'm reading the comic that I wanna read, and just dictating what's in it.
KS: Okay, some quick hitters. To tee it up off the last thing you said, what do you think makes you and Mitch Gerads a good creative partnership?
TK: Well, we're both super ambitious. We both want to be the best at what we do. I remember the year he won Best Eisner for artist, and I won Best Eisner for writer, and we had drinks and we were like, “Is this the top of the mountain?” He's like, “No, we got a ways to go.” I'm from Southern California, but my grandmother who helped raise me was from Nebraska. I think both of us have sort of a Midwestern sensibility, a hard work ethic, never take yourself too seriously, never toot your own horn — though I’ve been tooting my horn this whole fricking time, sorry about that. It’s all that stuff. And he can draw anything. There's no limit to Mitch.
KS: For this next one, to avoid playing favorites, let’s restrict it to people who are retired from comics or no longer with us at all. You can write one story for any artist from the history of the field. Who would you pick?
TK: My favorite artist of all time is Alex Toth. If I could write a little story for Toth, whatever he wants to do. Zorro? I personally would want to do something romance with him ‘cause he was, I think, the best romance artist of all time. He's the greatest comic artist of all time— comic artist, not the greatest cartoonist of all time, that's Charles Schulz. I think Toth’s Black Canary is probably the best drawn superhero comic ever, and it's just a silly story of her doing karate on these criminals. There’s all his '50s and '60s stuff, but the real way we encountered Toth was we all watched Johnny Quest and Thundarr when we were children and didn't realize it.
KS: Or Super Friends for those of a prior generation. It’s funny that he was your pick, because the last guest I asked that question to was Brian K Vaughan— who gave the exact same answer.
TK: There you go. The bald brotherhood.
KS: You mentioned The Matrix earlier, so if we could hook you up to a machine that would download some skill or ability you don’t have directly into your body, what would you go with? Instant change once it’s downloaded.
TK: I love this idea. I'm so bad at so many things, I'm trying to think of which would be the top one that I would want. Can an ability be having a better metabolism?
KS: We’re dealing with comic book science here, so absolutely.
TK: Oh my God, if I could eat anything I wanted… Ugh. I've been on a diet since I was four years old. I wanna eat some f—king chips. [laughter]
KS: Last question before I turn the floor over to you. Other than the big guns, like Dark Knight, Watchmen, Maus, what is a single work you would nominate to a hypothetical Comic Book Hall of Fame? What would you hold up as an example of the medium in its highest form?
TK: Tim Sale and Jeph Loeb did brilliant comics together, but I think their first collaboration— only me and Brian Bendis think this— on Challengers of the Unknown is their best and is a comic that is up there to me with Watchmen and Dark Knight. They didn't know the rules, they did all sorts of stuff you're not supposed to do in comics, and they made up new rules. If you look at that, you'd be like, “This is what Tom's trying to do with comics, taking a silly concept seriously and finding a deep meaning behind it all.”
KS: Weirdly, for all the DC deep catalog characters you’ve written, I’ve always thought Challengers seemed like a fastball right over the plate as far as your strengths and interests as a writer.
TK: Oh yeah. The idea of living on borrowed time? I would love to play with that. I have a Darwyn Cooke splash page from New Frontier — with the Challengers. It reminds me that I'm living on borrowed time.
KS: To wrap up, please let readers know what you have out now, what's coming out, anything that you'd like to call attention to.
TK: Between TV and comics, I think I have 15 projects, so you don't have to buy all those. That seems like too much. If you have to focus on one, Love Everlasting, which is my creator-owned, is now out in trade. It's a bizarre series that focuses on what would happen if a woman was stuck in romance stories, if she couldn't get out of being in a romance story. It’s a horror comic that’s also a romance comic. Elsa Charretier draws the crap out of it. Go pick up that trade— I think it's something new and something different.
This interview was edited for length.