When did this whole comic thing go from a hobby to something you knew you could do for a living?
You're going to think I'm being coy about this, but I made a proclamation at my house when I was 5. I said I was going to be the artist of Spider-Man. I got obsessed with the credits in comics. You know when as soon as you hear about something cool, you start memorizing the names of the people that made that magic for you? The people who made comics were rock starts to me. I bought them based on who did them, and I made this naïve proclamation, and only my mother could really appreciate how batshit crazy it is now that I've been the writer of Spider-Man after all the things that were standing in my way to do that. I started making comics while I was attending the Cleveland Institute of Art, and I got a contract to make indie comics distributed nationally. I started at Marvel in 1999.
What was it like not only realizing that dream and dealing with the immense pressure of, "OK, now I'm writing Spider-Man. What the hell do I do now?" but also the pressure of being in charge of such a beloved character?
I didn't know, but they had tried this before with Spider-Man Chapter One where it tried to reimagine it. It was kind of a misfire; it wasn't guilty of anything, but they acted like Spider-Man was broken and they had to fix it. Spider-Man wasn't broken. It's a testament to its longevity; it was near-perfect storytelling. I looked at what they had done – I wasn't the first writer they hired – so I got to see the mistakes, which sometimes was treating it too preciously. Anything I added or subtracted was simply in the context that the story was happening now instead of the 1950s, and using all the tools of modern comics to tell the story. Stan Lee for years had said the origin story was 11 pages only because that's all the space they gave him. I had all the pages I wanted, so where Uncle Ben was alive in one panel and dead in the next, I got to spend a couple issues really getting to know the guy. When it was announced, I got comments that basically said you suck. I was getting booed offstage before I started. But when the book came out, this miraculous thing that never happens happened: the Internet changed its mind. And we've been able to ride the wave of the book, and I'm still on it, which is a miracle, too.
After Spider-Man, what was it like taking over the Avengers franchise?
I took over Avengers in 2004, and I remember very specifically saying the best thing about taking over Avengers was that the movie will never be made, it'd be too expensive. Fast-forward 8 years later and it's the biggest movie ever. It was a book that was floundering for a while, and I basically said, 'Why aren't the Avengers the coolest characters?
And now you're on the creative team that deals with every Marvel product that becomes a film. What's it like having final say(ish) on the authenticity and transformation of these characters to the big screen?
Since Iron Man, Marvel has – and I use this term loosely – a brain-trust of creators and editor, and we kind of vet and consult on every script and project and cut of the movie. It's a smart idea to get us in a room to rip the script apart before filming starts. It worked really well on Iron Man, and ever since there's been this creative committee, and we're working on Captain America 2, Iron Man 3, etc.
80s Captain America or 80s Punisher, you have to see one, which is it?
80s Captain America. Many less people have seen it, but it may be the greatest bad movie ever made. You can't even goof on it it's so funny. It's a big budget movie, which is hilarious; Punisher wasn't. But Captain America looks like they were trying and completely blew it. My favorite scene is when Captain America is tied to a rocket and he reaches under the ropes and grabs Red Skull and says, 'If I'm going, you're coming with me.' And then Red Skull grabs a sword and cuts off his own arm, not Captain America's. And then he complains about it the rest of the movie and blames Captain America. Hey, no one told you to cut off your own arm. Captain America 2 will be far superior to that.
Thoughts on the digitization of the medium?
It's weird. The tablet is kind of tailor-made for the comic page. No one planned this, but the comic page looks very good. We'll see what happens, but I think slowly the language will change based on the technology. Comics used to be printed on pulpy paper for decades, so the art and color was done a certain way. In the 90s, when artwork got more defined, the paper stock got better. Now, it's digital, and people can see color the way we see it when we make it. We're already working on things like Infinite Comics that are sort of a cross between motion and regular, where you tap the panel on the tablet to do stuff. It feels right, it feels next level. You're not taking away what was special about comics in the first place. The biggest challenge is getting your work in people's hands, and now that everyone has a tablet, everybody has a comic store in their hands. There are people all over the world who don't have a comic store near them. Now they do.
Sounds like the best job in the world, but what's the biggest myth about the industry?
That human beings still make them. I get that all the time, people will say, "Wow, really? I thought a program did that?" Or that because Avengers made a billion dollars that I have a billion dollars. When I was in Cleveland, I was hustling like no one's business. I was bothering Scene and Northern Ohio Live and anyone that would give me a gig. I hustled. Scene was my Mount Everest. The Plain Dealer had hired me and I was there for years, but I couldn't get Scene to hire me. They finally gave me a couple of covers, but that's because I was a nudge. I still remember the first one I did – three guys in silhouette for a crooked cops story or something like that.
From afar and as a native, what's Cleveland's stamp on comics?
Cleveland has a legitimate grand history of comics. From Superman to Harvey Pekar, these are huge, monumental things. Brian K. Vaughn, he's one of the biggest names ever – one of the producers of Lost. And Brian Azzarello, who did Superman and Wonder Woman, is a very big deal. Removing myself, Cleveland is like New York or L.A., just a gigantic city in the history of comics.