by Michael Hutchison
Fanzing: First of all, John, thanks for the interview! Let's start off with questions about your current project, Martian Manhunter. What made you want to handle the green guy as your next commitment after your run on Spectre?
John Ostrander: The fact that he was green helped. Tom and I seem to have decided to only work on characters that are green. Okay, I'll get serious. Well, a LITTLE more serious. Tom and I wanted to do something completely different from the Spectre; we didn't want readers thinking we were just a one-trick pony. We also wanted to do a superhero; we hadn't done a straight forward superhero in a while. J'Onn was intriguing because he was a major player in the JLA yet, at the same time, seemed undefined in many ways. Not everything was cut and dried about his continuity. We felt we had room to add something to the character. And he is one of the most powerful beings in the DCU. So we lobbied for him and got him.
Fanzing: Martian Manhunter is rather unique in that, so far, there is NO supporting cast, just guest stars like the JLA and Agent Cameron Chase. Is that intentional (in keeping with the solitary nature of the hero) or are you planning to bring in some characters in the future?
John Ostrander: No, we definitely plan to have a supporting cast for him in the not too distant future. It's been a little tough because he has all these alter-egos. Do you build a supporting cast for each one? Do you focus only on a few? We've had the JLA really be J'Onn's supporting cast for awhile but it's time we got him one of his own.
Fanzing: JLA's Rock of Ages featured the new Injustice Gang which seemed to unintentionally highlight the fact that J'onn has never had an arch-enemy. One of the remarkable aspects of your series is the introduction of a Martian Manhunter Rogue's Gallery. Is this a priority for you in developing the book?
John Ostrander: Absolutely. To me, it's been one of the flaws of the character over the years -- his lack of his own Rogues' Gallery. Good villains define the hero and J'Onn needs his -- especially an archenemy. I think Malefic came pretty close to this.
Fanzing: Is J'onn immortal?
John Ostrander: Complicated question. Certainly, we've seen him merge with the planet and he seems to be long lived, probably part of being a shapechanger. Is his merging with the planet Mars a result of his contact with the Source? I would say yes. J'Onn is certainly long lived but that doesn't mean he couldn't be killed, in my opinion.
Fanzing: For once and for all can J'onn breathe in space or can't he?
John Ostrander: There's nothing to BREATHE in space. More fundamental question -- does J'Onn need to breathe?
Fanzing: Good point and in thinking about it, probably a moot one. I was thinking of J'onn's old origins in which he was trapped on Earth without a way back to Mars, which was thriving at the time. At that time, IF he could fly and survive in space, it's odd that he wouldn't have just flown home. And he has been shown wearing a spacesuit in the past. But none of that really gibes with the current series.
John Ostrander: The real question then would be not can J'Onn BREATHE in sapce but can he FLY in space without a spaceship? We have seen him use a spaceship to get to Mars. The answer would seem to be -- he can't or not far. Actually, Tom and I have postulated that his ability to fly is based more on manipulation of a planet's magnetic fields but that hasn't appeared in the book yet so you could say it isn't canonical. Yet.
Fanzing: By the way, Dr. Erdel (and he was John Erdel and Saul Erdel I don't remember his current name) was revealed to have survived in the first MM mini-series and reunited with J'onn. The current version collapsed; did he die or will he be showing up?
John Ostrander: I like him. Expect him back.
Fanzing: What do you have planned for this next year of Martian Manhunter?
John Ostrander: Well, following two fill-in stories in issues 10 and 11 (fill in artists; I'm still writing), issue 12 ties in with the Day of Judgment crossover, and then we launch on a four part story called THE RINGS OF SATURN. Very space opera type stuff and featuring Jemm, Son of Saturn. Then we'll resolve the whole DEO storyline. Beyond that I can't really say without giving other things away.
Fanzing: On the one hand, you've delved into a lot of DC history such as Argent, Suicide Squad, Mark Shaw, etc. On the other hand, you told me in an earlier e-mail that you felt free to contradict Martian Manhunter's earlier mini-series because it was published in 1987. How important to you is a comic character's history?
John Ostrander: It's always important to a certain degree but I don't want it to be stifling. I like to weave ELEMENTS of a character's history into my stories; in so doing, I think I play fair with the old readers. However, I also insist on re-interpreting some of the old data, see what new light it can shed on the character. I'm more interested in a character making sense than in a slavish devotion to past continuity. They told their stories; I'm telling mine.
Fanzing: Like the Zo'ok, a plant which makes up J'onn's costume, but is obviously an homage to Zook, his old pal in the Detective Comics?
John Ostrander: Essentially, that's as much Zook as you're going to get in this series but -- yes, it's a homage.
Fanzing: But don't you think this is something of a disservice to the readers who have stuck with a character for longer than a year or two as well as to the writers who came before you, whether the subject is Hawkman or Spectre or Martian Manhunter or Firestorm? Couldn't you more or less do your "take" without wiping out what's gone before? I can appreciate that it is sometimes necessary if the previous history is wildly inconsistent, but this isn't always the case.
John Ostrander: My first obligation to the reader is a good story and sometimes that means breaking with past continuity. I don't HATE continuity; actually, I've been very good with it overall. Better than many other writers have been or are willing to be. I try to keep faith with past continuity without letting it tie my hands. Slavish devotion to continuity is like cultivating kudzu; it's going to strangle everything ele you do. With SPECTRE, which continuity do I keep with? The Fleischer/Aparo one? The Moench/Whoever one? Keep in mind that they all got canceled. What I tried to do was use ELEMENTS of each while making a cohesive whole. With Firestorm, I kept to continuity but developed the storyline. With Hawkman -- well, that was an editorial decision that was out of my hands and a given before I came on the book. I later tried to reconcile the continuity as best I could. So I'm respectful of it and past fans but I don't worship it and I won't be hung by it and I think that's playing fair. I was a fan before I was a writer and I go way back so I appreciate the old fan and their concerns but sacrificing new readers to satisfy continuity is, I feel, a big mistake. So I choose a middle path as best I can.
Fanzing: Here's a question about the changes you made to Firestorm. Had you always planned to make Professor Stein the lone Fire Elemental, or was this something you did once you knew the series was coming to an end?
John Ostrander: Something I did as the series was coming to an end although I originally thought the series was continuing beyond issue 100. It was only at the last moment that it changed and I changed the ending of 100 a little to accomodate it, make an ending to the story. However, the cancelation also freed up Tom Mandrake to do the SPECTRE so this wasn't a bad thing.
Fanzing: How much can you change a character and still have the same concept? I often have this discussion with my online buddies when talking about Firestorm, which went from (A) a unique, cool "buddy" superhero created by joining an inexperienced teenager with a middle-aged scientist who advises him to (B) an examination of east-west Cold War relations in which an angst-ridden American young adult and a Russian family man who never meet in person summon Firestorm, thereupon helplessly existing inside him while a third, clueless, "stranger-in-a-strange-land" personality controls the superhero persona, to (C) the incarnation of the Fire Elemental on Earth, a new personality created from the permanent fusion of the American and Russian and Firestorm and a Soviet clone of Firestorm, with different powers and a completely different look. And later, (D) the scientist becomes the sole mind behind Firestorm as he winds up on the other side of the galaxy. And later still under a different writer, (E) the adult Ron Raymond, now an underwear model with leukemia and a drinking problem, regains his original powers and costume but without Professor Stein seems like just another run-of-the-mill fire-powered hero. At what point does this stop being the original character created by Gerry Conway in the late 70s? Or, to look at it another way, how much could you change Superman or Batman and still have the same character?
John Ostrander: Practical reality check. When I became the sole writer on FIRESTORM, it was 6 months away from cancelation. Meaning -- I had six months to bring him up to speed. The artist stayed the same and the editor was the same. When you're brought in under those circumstances, change is the name of the game. Also a given -- Gerry Conway had Professor Stein dying of an inoperable brain tumor when I came in. Again, already a given. So I had to deal with that. Also, I had a basic ethical problem with Firestorm. Ron formed Firestorm whenever he wanted but Professor Stein had no conscious memory of these events so they were blackouts and they were ruining Stein's life. So Ron's essentially destroying another guy's life so he could be a "cool buddy" superhero? Anyway, that which followed were progressions in the character which I did to keep the book fresh and the readers at the time interested. I wanted to do some different things in the book. Some perhaps were more successful than others. I also really wanted to change his look; he looked like a Bunsen burner with poofy sleeves. Just not a cool looking character, IMO. And, when I decided to bail with the 100th issue, the Powers-That-Be felt that too many readers would drop the book when I left so they decided to cancel it. Keep in mind I was still a relatively young writer at the time and FIRESTORM was my first superhero book. It was far from perfect but I'll stand by what I did.
[Editor's note: Actually, Stein's blackouts were quickly abandoned as a plot point years before John Ostrander came on the title in fact, Stein was conscious of them and had summoned Firestorm himself, so there was much more of an equal pairing but I didn't want to antagonize John any further and I do see his point about Firestorm as originally conceived.]
Fanzing: When you turned Firestorm's resident bully, Cliff Carmichael, into the new Thinker by installing computer chips and a disk drive into his head, had you read a lot of cyberpunk stories like Johnny Mnemonic?
John Ostrander: Nope. Still haven't.
Fanzing: Last year, Grant Morrison wrote a Flash story that featured the aged Thinker who could not find his old helmet. This, of course, contradicts the story in which he died and his helmet was used in experiments which resulted in the New Thinker, Carmichael. I realize that this is as old as the Martian Manhunter mini-series, so maybe the response is simply, "Hey, that was 1988," but I'm curious as to whether the New Thinker still exists or not. (I delved into this whole mess in a rather cranky Fanzing article: http://www.fanzing.com/mag/fanzing03/retcon.shtml )
John Ostrander: I'll be honest -- I barely remember turning Cliff Carmichael into the new Thinker. Does he exist or not? Probably in Hypertime somewhere. Maybe he just blinked out of history during Zero Hour.
Fanzing: I can't tell if you're joking or not! After almost two decades of doing so many stories, do they start to run together in your memory?
John Ostrander: Well, I DO have to sometimes check and make sure that the reason a certain idea sounds so good to me isn't that I've already DONE it<g>. Some stories just fall out of memory and the details certainly don't remain without my re-reading the books -- and I don't have time to go back and re-read all my old stuff. Nor the inclination. I'm more interested in the NEXT story I'm telling.
Fanzing: Here's a question from left field. What ever happened to the Zuggernaut from your run on Firestorm? I'm not saying I'm crazy about the character, which looked like a violet Geiger alien that shot fireballs from its nipples (gotta admit, that's original). But, given that an alien race destroyed a planet with a population of 4 billion in order to kill the Zuggernaut, I've got to believe it's more of a threat than it originally appeared to be! Have you ever shown what happened to the Zuggernaut after it left its Russian black marketeer host body?
John Ostrander: No, I don't think so. To be honest, I lost interest in the critter and I think no-one else found it interesting, either. As you said, he was a bit lame.
Fanzing: When the decision was made to introduce Hawkman into the modern era (Tim Truman revealed in a previous interview that you weren't the one responsible for that decision, but he felt strongly against it) instead of "back-dating" the changes from Tim Truman's "Hawkworld" mini-series, did you have any idea how many significant continuity gaps a minor league character like Hawkman was going to open up? Given that you then spent a lot of time trying to retroactively plug those gaps, if you had to do it over again, would you do anything differently?
John Ostrander: The decision was purely Mike Gold's. I argued against it at the time but Mike was adamant; he wanted the Hawkman series to start up right after the end of the Tim Truman miniseries. All of Tim's stories could've happened before Hawkman arrived on Earth and the series could've picked up with him already ON Earth. My choice was doing it Mike's way or not doing the book. I felt another writer wouldn't have worked as well or closely with what Tim had done so I decided to do the book. I did disagree and still disagree with the premise and the junking of continuity. That said, I'll stand by the stories. There was some first-rate stuff there. If I had it to do over again, I'd fight again to keep from wrecking continuity needlessly. Would I still write the series? I'd think a lot harder this time about it. I took some hits for it over a decision that wasn't mine.
Fanzing: The Suicide Squad still seems to have a very strong fan base. Have you ever tried to bring it back?
John Ostrander: Oh yeah. DC wants to see something "different" with the Squad. The reasoning is that, since it got canceled, it needs to be fixed. Made new. I've got another proposal in for a new Squad miniseries; we'll see if anyone takes to it.
Fanzing: You contributed greatly to the development of Nightshade into a three-dimensional character. Did you see the re-designed Nightshade in the new mini-series The L.A.W.? Do you have any thoughts on the changes to her character?
John Ostrander: I haven't seen the changes yet so I'm not qualified to comment.
Fanzing: Of all the characters in the Suicide Squad, who are your favorites?
John Ostrander: Amanda Waller, Deadshot, Captain Boomerang. I think any basic reading of the Squad reveals that. I really enjoyed Punch and Jewelee as well. They were just so LOOPY! And, obviously, Father Craemer was a favorite since I pulled him over to the SPECTRE. I was fond of a LOT of the characters in Squad.
Fanzing: How did you come to work with your creative partner Tom Mandrake?
John Ostrander: Tom lives about 10 minutes away from me and we're great pals. We first worked together on GRIMJACK and, at that point, we had never met OR worked together. But one artist was leaving and a new one hadn't been found. I had heard on the grapevine that Tom had just left Batman and might be available. I thought his moody inks and pencils would serve my character well so I sent the editor after him. Only later did I discover that Tom had gone to Kubert Art School with Tim Truman, who had co-created GrimJack with me, and they were good friends as well. There was an odd sort of synchronicity going on.
Fanzing: Another Ostrander-Tom Mandrake venture was "The Spectre". While I've always considered him an interesting character when making a guest appearance, he seemed too all-powerful to carry an ongoing title. How did you come up with a way to make him a workable character without reducing his powers?
John Ostrander: To me, him having these great powers was the POINT. Every character has their own visual iconography; you open their book and there's certain things you expect them to do. To limit the Spectre's powers seemed to me to take away his visual iconography. So I explored the make-up of his character or, to be more precise, CORRIGAN'S character. That was where we made our real changes. Corrigan had been a plainclothes cop back in the 30s before he got killed. To me, that meant he was pretty hard nosed. So we kept that. And our real limitation on the Spectre was Corrigan. You may have the powers of a god but how you use those powers depends on your own perceptions and limitations. So the inherent limitations on THE SPECTRE would come on who CORRIGAN was as a person. And that interplay allowed us plenty of space for development. That and our insistence that Corrigan was dead and had been since the 30s.
Fanzing: One of your greatest story arcs (in my opinion) was Firestorm's attempt to force nuclear disarmament upon the superpowers. At the time, you had America offer Firestorm a deal that the superpowers would strive to form a peaceable solution by well, I forget the year, but it was during the Bush Administration. Which, of course, is when this actually happened in the real world. A bit of precognition on your part?
John Ostrander: Dumb luck. And the dumber the luck, the more likely it is to be mine<g>.
Fanzing: Now it looks like we're on the brink of a new Cold War with China and we have to build our arsenal all over again. I realize Firestorm was going renegade and didn't have any kind of grand plan but don't you wish we had a Firestorm in our own world who could prevent this kind of thing? (Or perhaps a Suicide Squad?)
John Ostrander: Take away the bombs and they'll fight with guns; take away the guns and they'll fight with knives; take away the knives and they'll use stick, stones, fists, or each other. If there's one thing Kosovo shows is that unless you heal the underlying hates, wars will continue.
Fanzing: You often wrote Suicide Squad stories that paralleled political and international events in our own world. In the past seven years since the series ended, have there been events that made you wish you still had Suicide Squad to comment on them?
John Ostrander: Oh, of course. We got a lot of our plots from reading newspapers or listening to news reports. We'd then speculate on what MIGHT happen and work a story up from that. An acquaintance once called up and asked where we would be sending the Squad that summer because she was trying to plan her vacation and she didn't want to go anywhere we'd be setting a Squad story since those areas had ways of flaring up.
Fanzing: What are your leisure interests besides comic books?
John Ostrander: Reading, listening to music, movies, talking with friends.
Fanzing: Now, the standard question: how did you get into comic books? Can you tell us some of your personal history? How did you come to work for DC Comics?
John Ostrander: Mike Gold gave me my first shot. He knew me as a friend, as a playwrite and knew my continuing love of comics. When he was helping to start up First Comics, he gave me a shot. I sold the story, I got more work, and I was off to the races. I was 33 at the time and I used to laugh I may have been comics' oldest rookie. Up to that time I had been an actor/playwright/director in Chicago when that theater scene was just first starting to bloom. As I got more and more comics work, I gave up theater because, to be honest, I was enjoying writing comics more and making a real living at it. When Gold went over to DC, he had me plot LEGENDS, which was the first big company crossover after CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS. Three books sprang out of that: the new FLASH, the JLI, and the SUICIDE SQUAD.
Fanzing: Do you write anything besides comic books?
John Ostrander: I've written plays and I'm working on some stories and, hopefully, a novel.
Fanzing: With most of your recent work being in taking lesser-loved characters (such as Martian Manhunter or Spectre) and giving them well-defined personalities and depth and detailed histories, are there any specific characters you haven't gotten the chance to work with yet but would like to?
John Ostrander: THE DEMON, very definitely. CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN have always been some of my faves. OMAC is tres cool. Other people have already gotten to such characters as DR. FATE and the NEW GODS but I always wanted to play with them as well. CAPTAIN FEAR is someone I'd like to do again. Just for the record -- I wouldn't mind a shot at some of the big time characters on a regular basis.
Fanzing: Of all the stories you've written, which ones are your favorites and why?
John Ostrander: Probably certain RUNS or SERIES more than anything else. GRIMJACK is always closest to my heart. SUICIDE SQUAD, GOTHAM NIGHTS, WASTELAND, THE SPECTRE, and THE KENTS all stand out for me. BATMAN: SEDUCTION OF THE GUN was a very important special issue. GRIMJACK most connects with my thoughts and dreams and fears. The SQUAD remains close because of the interaction of all the misfits we had there and the fact I co-wrote it with my late wife, Kim Yale. GOTHAM NIGHTS, especially the first series, matched story and art in a wonderful way and I was able to bring off the idea pretty close to what I had in mind. THE SPECTRE was one of the most satisfying series I've done; we had a clear vision of the character, Tom and I, and were able to get it on the page. Everything, from cover to letters page, was top drawer. I'm very proud of it. WASTELAND was extremely difficult, extremely demanding, and could be extremely rewarding. We didn't always hit the mark with it but, when we did, we killed. THE KENTS was also a very demanding piece of work but one of which I am extremely proud. We took the Western, which no one was doing, fused it with history (a lot of research went into it), tied it to the Superman mythos and told an intense tale of two brothers against a powerful time in our nation's history. BATMAN: SEDUCTION OF THE GUN was printed in response to gun violence and was used by the Governor of Virginia to help pass gun legislation in that state. THAT was worth doing.
Fanzing: Earlier in the interview you said "take away the guns and they'll fight with knives; take away the knives and they'll use stick, stones, fists, or each other." That's very wise and I'd certainly agree with that statement, but despite that you still advocate gun control? Or are you just for certain safety measures? Also, do you really think gun control helps when we have tens of thousands of gun laws and almost no enforcement of them? There's been only one prosecution in the four years since the Brady bill passed, and the feds have gone after 20 juvenile gunmen (gunboys?) out of an estimated 20,000. I don't belong to the NRA I don't even LIKE guns and I've never touched one but it seems like enforcement of existing laws is the real problem. Also and please understand, I'd be remiss if I didn't ask this how do you reconcile this with the fact that you made Deadshot such a cool character that you did a mini-series?
John Ostrander: Lots of questions to which I may have a few answers. My stance on gun control is always ambivalent. For example, I am NOT in favor of banning them outright because I think it will only create a huge black market a la Prohibition in the 20s. I see no reason to make Organized Crime even richer. Don't create a law that will be defied; you just undercut respect for the Law. If you're not going to enforce the Law, why pass it? I think the Brady Bill has pluses to it in that it has kept or made more difficult for certain people to get a gun -- at least legally. When will gun control be effective? When we get serious about it -- and that's hard to do with the NRA snarling at every turn. As for Deadshot -- he may be cool to some but I see him as a very twisted and sick person. He's very screwed up. With him, as with GrimJack, I was trying to show the effect that violence has on the person committing it. Deadshot is already dead behind the eyes.
Fanzing: You mentioned working with Kim Yale, your late wife. What was co-writing with your wife like? What did she add to the story that an all-Johnny O story wouldn't have contained?
John Ostrander: Add to the NORMAL problems of co-writing the fact that you were also working with your wife and sometimes the personal becomes inseparable from the professional. Yet, I learned on both levels. We did have some unspoken rules. If she felt strongly about something and I didn't feel as strongly, we would go her way. Vice versa with me. When we both felt strongly, we'd argue the case. I was the writer with more experience and, if I felt my experience said this was the way it had to be, that's how it went. I tried not to do that often and it only came up a handful of times. When we had one computer, and were working on Squad, she would take a section and I would take another, or I'd start at the opening and she the back, and we would write separately. Then we would exchange with each other and do a second draft over each other's work. Then we'd reconcile any differences. Actually, it went pretty smoothly about 95% of the time. Kim had a better command and understanding of the language than I did; my sense of plotting was better. She had insights into some of the characters, especially the female ones, that I didn't have. She had a great sense of the moment, of the scene; I had a better overall grasp of the plot and structure. In the Oracle: Year One story (our last collaboration together), Kim was insistent we have a page showing how hard it was to shift from a wheelchair to a car. Never would've occurred to me. She wanted Barbara being sharp to Batman in the hospital. What she added were her own touches on characters and story, not necessarily better than mine than mine were of hers. Just different while compatible. That made the whole thing richer.
Fanzing: Chuck Dixon recently told me that every character at DC is under option for some kind of media treatment. Have there ever been serious plans to turn any of your characters into a movie or TV show?
John Ostrander: I once had in interesting phone conference with some people who wanted to make SUICIDE SQUAD a TV show. Also, there was some interest at one time expressed in THE KENTS as a miniseries but, insofar as I know, there's been no development of either.
Fanzing: What are your plans for New Year's Eve, 1999? (You don't have to give specifics in case you're worried about a bunch of fanboys showing up!)
John Ostrander: It's a number and doesn't really mean anything to me. New Year's Eve (like St. Patrick's Day) is when all the amateur drunks come out on the roads. I'll probably duck and cover.
Fanzing: What do you hope to be doing ten years from now?
John Ostrander: Ask me in nine years. Ten years ago I wouldn't have seen my life where it is now. Life is what happens to you after you've made your plans and it's far too strange to predict.
Fanzing: Any advice for a struggling writer who may beat your record for "oldest rookie in the comics biz"?
John Ostrander: Go someplace that has a future. [The comics field] seems to be bleeding to death and I don't know if anyone can stop it. If you're trying to start a career, start one where it may be worth your effort. Sorry to sound brutal but that's how the market is today.
Fanzing: Will you be slipping any Monty Python inside jokes into "Martian Manhunter"?
John Ostrander: Hadn't thought to but now that the thought has occurred to me, I might. So you never know!
All characters and scanned artwork are DC Comics
This column is © 1999 by Michael Hutchison.