Written by Bryan Stroud
Elliot S! Maggin (born November 14, 1950) is an American writer of comic books, film, television, and novels. He wrote steadily for DC during the Bronze Age of comics in the 1970's and 1980's. He is particularly well known for his time spent with the Superman character.
Mr. Maggin started working as a professional writer in his teens, selling historical stories about the Boer War. His first published work for DC was a Green Arrow story titled "What Can One Man Do?", released in 1971.
He has been active with the Democratic Party of the United States, twice running for a seat on the U.S. House of Representatives — once from New Hampshire's 2nd congressional district in 1984, and then from California's 24th congressional district in 2008.
Elliot also served as an editor for DC from 1989 to 1991, where he edited the Challengers of the Unknown limited series written by Jeph Loeb and drawn by Tim Sale.
Elliot S! Maggin is a writer whose work I had admired a great deal as a young comic book fan. It really struck a chord with me when I got my hands on the issues of Justice League of America where he and Cary Bates and Julius Schwartz were featured on Earth Prime and they interacted with the famous heroes and villains I'd enjoyed for so long. Elliot was gracious with his time and memories and I even got to shake his hand at the Denver Comic Con a couple of years ago.
This interview originally took place via email on February 9, 2009.
Bryan Stroud: What made you decide to try your hand at comic scripts?
Elliot S! Maggin: When I was about 18 – and I really hadn’t read a comic book in five or six years – I found myself running a tutoring and recreation program for about 300 kids in the town where I was going to college. We worked out of this veterans’ housing project in Waltham, Massachusetts and the city housing authority gave us an unoccupied apartment to use as a clubhouse for the kids. It was empty except for a bunch of ratty old pieces of furniture so I dug up about a hundred old Superman comics out of these big galvanized steel boxes my dad had made and I scattered them around the apartment. The kids swiped them or ripped them up or ate them in really short order so rather than deplete my old collection further I started buying new ones and I noticed there was a difference.
I latched onto Denny [O'Neil] and Neal [Adams]'s Green Lantern/Green Arrow stories and I noticed there were bylines – there hadn’t been any in the early Sixties – and the guys doing these stories weren’t just blowing them off. They were taking some care. Putting some craft in the things. I realized that I was a writer pretty much because of all these comic books I’d read in my pre-teen years and it occurred to me that comics were a decent place to be a writer. They really were. Still are. I’ve written all kinds of stuff besides comics, and managed to sell most of it, but I’ve never had a better education than when I had to write a comic story a week for five years straight. Pick up Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Outliers, would you? Getting a craft right is more about putting in a lot of hours doing something you love than it is about any kind of native talent. I must have spent easily ten-thousand hours those first five years just writing words. You do that and you’ve got to get good at it eventually. What was the question?
Stroud: Superman was your ticket to DC and you’re very much identified with him, enjoying about 15 years writing his adventures. Is that your favorite character?
Maggin: He is. All of those characters associated with the Superman legend make a very organic whole. You’ve got to give Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster a lot of credit, of course, but this is an ensemble cast that evolved over time through the hands of dozens of storytellers. I’m very proud to have been associated with that crew for so long.
Stroud: Did you imagine he’d still be going strong after 70 years?
Maggin: Sure, I did. He’s an archetype. Like Zeus and King David. He’ll live as long as the American nation lives in historical memory, and that’s not going anywhere for the foreseeable future. He’s part of our identity.
Stroud: You pretty well stuck with the super hero genre. Was that a conscious choice?
Maggin: I don’t know. I’m not sure I’ve ever done anything that has to do with writing stories consciously.
Stroud: One of my all-time favorite stories as a kid was the annual JLA/JSA crossover in #123 and #124 that featured appearances by you and Cary and others on Earth Prime. How was it decided that Cary would be the villain?
Maggin: We probably flipped a coin. I still think those stories are just horrendous.
Stroud: Whose idea was Earth Prime?
Maggin: I think it was Gardner Fox’s. Or Julie Schwartz’s. I know it wasn’t mine.
Stroud: Did you think Dick Dillin and Frank McLaughlin depicted you well?
Maggin: Well I guess they did. I got fan mail from women who wanted to meet me. I got stalkers, for heaven’s sakes.
Maggin: Cary wrote the scene descriptions and I wrote the dialog. Both of us felt like we were doing less than half the work. Sometimes we did it on this clunky little Sony cassette recorder, but mostly he’d type out scripts with space between the shots and I’d fill them in on my own typewriter. Remember typewriters? I went right from a manual Olympia to a word processor. I never saw the value-added in an electric typewriter.
Stroud: What other writers did you admire?
Maggin: In comics, Denny O’Neil has always been the best as far as I’m concerned. I never understood why he felt he never got the hang of Superman, but that worked out well for me. In other media my favorite living writers these days, I think, are Orson Scott Card and Russell Baker. And Bob Dylan although his poetry gets a little precious and purposefully obtuse. Then there are a whole bunch of dead people, and I think I managed to name all the best of them in my introduction to the Kingdom Come novel. I mentioned Aristocles there (whose pen-name was Plato) and I think I left out Aldous Huxley and Theodore Sorensen – who’s living, I know, because I still run into him on the street once in awhile.
Stroud: Did you spend much time at the DC offices?
Maggin: Yeah. Going there was a great excuse to blow off time I might better have spent writing. It used to drive Sol Harrison up a wall when I showed up in jeans or shorts.
Stroud: Tell me your memories of Julie Schwartz.
Maggin: He always wore a tie. What, you want more?
Julie was like a dad. I had a real dad until very recently – and they got along well, actually, Julie and my dad. Julie was really gruff and brusque, and I always got the impression he was being that way because he thought it was somehow charming. He had this notion that he wasn’t capable of really intimidating anyone, and in fact he was a very intimidating guy to a lot of people. Harlan Ellison is like that too, but I think he’s more self-aware. I think he picked up that attitude from Julie, to whom he was never able to say no about anything. Julie and I were like a couple of Jewish kids from the streets, constantly arguing and making up and going for months or years without talking to each other and then falling back into the same paths with no one ever apologizing for anything. I still have to get better at apologizing for stuff. After his wife Jean died, and I still lived in the east, I started inviting Julie over for my family’s Passover Seder and we always had a good time with that. He’s one of the really important people of my life. I miss him.
Stroud: Was your story “Make Way for Captain Thunder!” in Superman #276 originally intended to feature Captain Marvel?
Maggin: Nope. I never intended for Superman and Captain Marvel to meet. We had all these alternate universes kicking around the Multiverse, remember. I figured Superman and Cap lived in non-contiguous worlds where you just couldn’t get there from here without getting caught in a very treacherous probability field trying. With Captain Thunder I told Curt Swan to think of Captain Marvel the way he’d look in “the real world.”
Stroud: You seemed to be the designated writer for Superman for quite awhile. Was that something you sought out or was it a matter of being in the right place at the right time?
Maggin: I think necessarily it’s always a little of both. I was in the right place at the right time, certainly, because I fell into place at a time when Superman was kind of out of fashion among comics mavens. When Mort Weisinger retired and Julie took over Superman I don’t think anyone knew quite what to do with the character. Mort’s approach had been that he was telling fairy tales for children. When I showed up with this classic liberal education, I brought this notion that Superman was a contemporary icon and had to reinterpret that iconography in twentieth-century terms. It’s an evolving process of which I’m convinced Mort was only vaguely conscious. Julie started out by trying to be Mort who, by his own admission, was just making it up as he went along. Julie got all agitated whenever I told him I was trying to write stories that I’d want to read myself. I think it took awhile before he realized I was consciously applying the same humanistic approach that Mort had done unconsciously all those previous years. I like to think I caught on with the fan base because I wanted to catch on; because I got the joke out of the starting gate.
Stroud: Which artists did you particularly enjoy as far as interpreting your scripts?
Maggin: Curt Swan and Murphy Anderson, of course, on Superman. I always wished I’d been able to do more work with Neal Adams, Walt Simonson and Bernie Wrightson. I think I did a total of one story with each of those guys. Probably my favorite, though, turned out to be Alex Toth, with whom I also did just one story in all the time we shared space on this planet.
Stroud: Did you ever provide much reference with your scripts?
Maggin: When I worked with Julie he always seemed to have access to more reference than I did. He had this file cabinet full of the most arcane stuff. Images from Teutonic mythology. Gnostic texts. A joke file from the Friar’s Club. What-all. He left a lot of that reference material behind, and the last time I saw Paul Levitz, a few months ago, he yanked out this manila file stuffed with all these Elliot references. The original of the letter Julie wrote me accepting my first script. Old scripts themselves. “You going to keep all this stuff?” I asked Paul. And he said, “No, you are.” I have no idea what I’m going to do with it. I’m tempted to scan everything and post it on my website and put the originals in some university archive. Maybe Brandeis or Columbia, where I went to school, if they’d appreciate it. I hear the University of Wyoming has a nice pop cultural collection, and the Library of Congress has lately gotten around to indexing their comic book collection. Who knows? Now we’ve got the internet, and I can provide reference for anything I like without leaving my desk.
Stroud: How long did it usually take you to knock out a story?
Maggin: When I was working at writing comics full time I turned out about twelve pages a week like clockwork, rewrites and all. I used to do a lot of rewrites.
Stroud: Did you have any editors you especially enjoyed working with?
Maggin: Julie, of course, and Andy Helfer. I did a few stories with Mark Waid and Brian Augustyn when they were editing. That was lots of fun.
Stroud: You’ve written a little for other publishers like Archie, Continuity, Marvel and First Comics, but DC was your mainstay. Did you feel a particular loyalty to them?
Maggin: To DC? Sure. They’re like having an institutional family. Like belonging to a temple.
Stroud: You wrote almost half the stories for the short-lived Joker series. That one was unique because the Joker had to be captured at the end of each story to abide by the comics code. Was that a tough challenge?
Maggin: I don’t think that was so much tough as it was bizarre. I really liked that series. Especially the Black Canary story. The Joker got to be heterosexual for a change. Those Comics Code rules were really wacky. Good riddance. I think I’d like to do a Joker series like that in the current atmosphere. You can be funny and brutal at the same time. That’d be cool, I think.
Stroud: You wrote quite a few Shazam! Stories. Was that an enjoyable assignment?
Maggin: Yeah. I remember Denny and me comparing notes. We both thought we were getting away with something doing those scripts. That was a blast. Would’ve been nicer if they’d ever caught on.
Stroud: Was Green Arrow sort of your alter ego?
Maggin: That’s what I thought at the time. I even introduced Neal to my girlfriend at the time to get him to model Dinah after her. I think he liked my girlfriend. I wrote a weekly column for my college newspaper in those days and it tended to have a really eccentric terminology and expression set. I think Green Arrow was an alter ego for the guy I was in those columns.
Stroud: You’ve done some editing. How did it compare to writing?
Maggin: When I’m writing I’m always in the zone. Even now, answering these questions. Time passes without my noticing. When I’m editing I have to do it in the real world. It’s much less fun.
Stroud: How did you get tagged for the Kingdom Come novelization?
Maggin: Novel. “Novelization” is a process. “Novel” is a product. I’m compulsive that way. Sorry.
Mark Waid called and said he’d like me to adapt the story and asked if I’d seen the series. I hadn’t, and I told him I certainly wouldn’t want to do it, but I was glad to hear he was writing the series because I liked his sensibility about that stuff. He said he was sending me the two books that had already come out and the scripts for the other two and I should please read it and tell him what I thought then. So I said fine, of course I’d read the thing. Great stuff. What tied it, though, was that when I got to the end of the script for number four I saw he’d dedicated the series to me. So, I called him and thanked him and I said now I’d have to do it and he had put me in a lousy bargaining position because clearly, I couldn’t allow anyone else to do it. I loved writing the thing. Just loved it. I wished I could have just written it in a vacuum with no one to bother me about it. I got really possessive about every comma and apostrophe. Especially the apostrophes.
Stroud: What made you decide to move on to other things?
Maggin: I’m not sure. I don’t think I remember. I wanted to do other things, to do books and screenplays and be a Hollywood guy, and I had kids to raise. So, I came out to L.A. and ran around town trying to sell stuff. And I sold a lot of stuff, but nothing got produced, and I got involved with internet programming and got hooked. I think in my advanced years I want to do what I want to do and I don’t want anyone telling me what to do, and it’s not like I ever did, but now I know I don’t have to put up with it. So as long as I’m managing to raise my kids – they’re a medical student and a high school senior sports phenom these days – I think I ought to do what I want. So I am – profitable or not. I’m talking to DC about a new bunch of graphic novels, and I’m writing a book – it’s called Lancer – whose first draft I’m posting online as I write each chapter, and I’ve got another graphic nonfiction book in the works and that’s what’s going on. So now you know as much as I do. I’ll keep you posted. Honest.
Stroud: Jim Shooter told me that being a writer is a good foundation for all sorts of other projects and your career echoes that. Have you enjoyed some of your other forays in film, television and video games?
Maggin: Yeah, mostly. Being a writer is a lot like being a lawyer that way. I like being someone who can do a bunch of disparate things relatively credibly. I train people in software systems. I’ve written for newspapers. I’ve taught high school. I’ve been a ski bum for years at a time. I’ve run for office. The politicos, of all people, were actually pretty intimidated, it seemed, by my bizarre resume. I didn’t fit into any of the normal boxes. I like it that way.
Stroud: You still write a few stories here and there for DC. Do you have any desire for another regular gig?
Maggin: I have a desire for an irregular gig. Unless they let me bring back the Joker book. Or maybe Krypto.
Stroud: Do you think comics have much of a future?
Maggin: I used to think comics were that ten-cent thing that came off a rotary press in 1931. Eventually I realized, as Jim Steranko said, that the comics have been around since some caveman painted a five-legged antelope on a cave wall to indicate that it was running. Comics are alive and well. It’s all in the execution. Just like the rest of the Universe.
Stroud: What projects are you working on today?
Maggin: Two graphic novels. A piece of graphic nonfiction. A screenplay. Two prose novels, including the one I’m posting online. Isaac Asimov used to work in this big room in his basement in Boston that had a circular table with three typewriters and three concurrent projects on it. When he ran short on one he’d go to the next chair and get to work on another. People would ask him if he ever got writer’s block and he’d laugh. My role model.
Be sure to check out Elliot's website to see more of his work!