Mark Mazz’s 12 Questions
with Ken Gale
from December, 2007
1) You have an extensive history in comics, what was your earliest published work, and how did that come about?
First Non-paid published work would have been in an early issue of The Legion Outpost. I wrote short articles for many of the issues. That came about because I became friends with the editors.
First paid Non-fiction was in Amazing World of DC Comics #4; I contributed to the Jerry Robinson interview. I was roommates with a DC staffer, Tony Tollin (whom I met at a Phil Seuling convention) and went along when he interviewed Jerry because I knew some stuff about Jerry and Batman history that he didn’t know. I also helped transcribe the interview.
First paid fiction: Swords in the World Series in Creepy #106 (drawn by Jim Starlin and Joe Rubenstein) from Warren Publishing. I met a friend of the editor at a party and that was my “in.” But the editor still had to like my story plot, of course.
Even when I was writing for math textbooks (those questions at the end of the chapters, “Practice Your Skills”) it was because of a personal connection I made.
2) Having worked with some of the defining editors in the industry, what would you consider to be their common thread?
Hard work. Caring about what they put out. Wanting my story to be the best it could be. One editor told me characterization was the key, that what the readers are following are the characters and there must be character interaction. Another told me to give the readers information only when they need to know it, not before. (I’m assuming he wasn’t talking about foreshadowing.)
3) Evolution Comics were defined as “intelligent comics for intelligent readers.” How much reader interaction/reader support did you experience?
That label of “intelligent” actually got laughter from some people at conventions. I don’t know if it was because they couldn’t conceive that comic books can be intelligent or because they found it funny that I was using it as a selling point. That doesn’t speak well for comics in general.
Part of the answer can be seen in our letter columns. We got some great letters! I got a lot of support from the Board and membership of the Celtic League American Branch because of the respectful and accurate way we treated Celtic mythology in Dangerous Times. They would tell me about places we could sell Dangerous Times. There were a lot of bookstores and events where we were the only comic books represented. Some of the attendees we’d meet at, say, an Irish festival or independent book convention were bothered that there were comic books there and some attendees were incredibly pleased to see us.
I will remember forever a woman from Boston named Agnes that we met at a Boston comic convention. I did my rap about accurate Celtic mythology and history and she looked over the comics and with a sort of suspicious expression on her face said, “Okay, I’ll try them. I’ll let you know tomorrow if you’re a genius or a crook.” Clearly there was no in-between with her. She bought the whole set. The next day, she came back to our table and just stood there staring. I finally asked, “Well, what did you think?” I remember a pause before she answered in low volume, “I didn’t know comics could be this good.” Do you see why I’ll remember her forever? What better comment could a creator get?
4) As a seasoned writer, what methods do you use to gain reader identification? Do feel that’s changed over time?
No, basically I don’t think it’s changed. You have to create realistic characters that are not a stereotype and you have to have a good ear for dialogue. People now don’t talk the same way they spoke 25 years ago, but a writer’s ear has to know and tell the difference. Certainly I wouldn’t dialogue the characters from my Warren story the same way now, but I’d still base the character on someone or some people I know. I can still learn from writers who wrote before I was born, but that doesn’t mean I copy their dialogue. I learn things like pacing and how to introduce a character and how to be true to the story and the character. I hope I’m always able to learn no matter how successful I become.
In Death Storm, for instance: I think most of us have gone over to a friend’s place after school and most of us either play video games or have seen someone play them, so opening the story with someone going to a friend’s place after school to play video games is instantly recognizable. So is the banter between them. At the last convention, a teenager told me they sound just like him and his friends and I think he was surprised I did it so well since I’m not a teenager. That’s what writing is.
5) How did the‘Nuff Said! radio show come about?
I’m going to give you a long story because of the strange twists and turns it takes. This’ll be the first time this has all been in print. I dressed up at a Phil Seuling con as Mr. Gumby from Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The next Phil Seuling one-day con I went to, people were calling me Mr. Gumby. One of them was a young artist drawing at an empty table. That artist was Steve Biasi and drawing next to him was his good friend Ed Menje. That’s how I met and became friends with Ed Menje. I kept in contact with them and was somewhat involved with the WPIX listener group that sprang up when WPIX changed music formats in the early ‘80s. What a station WPIX-FM was back then! While disco had a grip on most music stations and the rock stations played only older stuff, WPIX was the only NYC station to play Talking Heads, The Ramones, The Clash, The Jam, various ska and reggae bands, etc. when they were new. That listener group led to Ed becoming a disc jockey for WNYU then WBAI-FM.
When Evolution Comics started and I was looking for inkers, I thought of Ed, who had done inking for Marvel Comics via Tony DeZuniga and Alfredo Alcala and the “New York Tribe.” I knew to contact Ed at WBAI and he inked the Actionmaster feature for us.
So one day he was dropping off some pages and I was talking about a tape of obscure rock music that I’d made for a friend, what I chose and why I chose it. Ed mentioned that he used to have a partner on his music show and now he did it by himself and it’s more fun with someone. I realized after he left that he was hinting that I join him. I literally have thousands of albums. So I took his hint and became a DJ on WBAI-FM.
When Evolution Comics would have a table at conventions, Ed would be there. He noticed that I knew a lot of artists, knew a lot about comics history and knew a lot of behind the scenes stuff about comics. He also noticed that I’d sometimes draw a small crowd telling stories. So he suggested we start interviewing writers and artists on the radio.
I replied that music was more popular than comics. As if I with a year on radio knew more than Ed, who had nearly 10 years on the air. He said what I had was special. But it took someone else to help convince me of this. Like I said, a long story.
I did a guest spot on Chronic Rift, a cable access TV show, about Alan Moore. At the end-of-season cast party, I got into a conversation with Jim Freund, who does the science fiction show on WBAI. When I told him I was there as a comics person, he told me a lot of his audience was into comics and he wasn’t and would I mind guest-hosting his show some day.
I said yes and when he gave me a date, I set up an interview with Jim Shooter. This was right after Valiant got rid of him, but before Defiant had started up (1993). He gave his side of some of the stuff that happened with him at Marvel and Valiant. When we took listener phone calls, every line was lit up the whole time. When we ran out of time, I saw that there were many more callers who wanted to talk to Jim and asked if he’d come on to our music show to take these calls. He said yes, even though it was early in the morning.
Ed edited the two-hour show into about five 10-minute segments so our audience would know who Jim was and what we talked about. At the end, again, every line was lit with listener callers. The following show, Ed and I talked comics about half the show. The following show, I interviewed Vidorix the Druid writer Alexei Kondratiev and ‘Nuff Said! was born. We got a better time slot twice then were canceled in 2002 because the program director thought either comics or the show had a “narrow focus” and only appealed to “middle-class white males.”
6) When was the moment that you realized that you had an impressive following through that venue?
I don’t know how to answer that. I could say when it was canceled and there was such a clamor about it from all over fandom, but I had inklings before that. The first time was during a music break when a middle-aged woman called off air. Ed, myself, the callers, and our guest (I forget who it was) were talking about comics artists we loved and how this and that person’s art is gorgeous and beautiful and she said that she could never conceive that comic book art could be gorgeous, but after hearing the show, maybe it could be and maybe she should stop discouraging her 17-year-old from drawing.
That was the first time that I realized something I did over the air could affect someone.
I can still remember the first time someone not at a convention or other fannish event recognized my voice (a security guard at a museum). That was another inkling. I’m not sure what I do right and maybe I’m better off not knowing. It’s nice to know that I have fans; or, at least that the shows I do have fans.
7) The‘Nuff Said! radio program has run for years on WBAI. Some of the best episodes/interviews have now been saved into down-loadable podcasts...Do you feel that is a future you’d like to pursue with the show?
What other future does the show have? I’d like to continue the show either on audio or video. I think the history of popular culture is more important than the speeches of politicians and I was preserving some of that history and also eroding some of the prejudice that comics still (!) has in America. Plus I was exploring the creative process with the actual creators.
8) You have been an eloquent speaker during times of great loss for the comics community...to what do you attribute this?
Thank you. These are people I admire, whose shoulders we’re all standing on and they’re often friends of mine, sometimes… good friends. Perhaps I’m becoming more eloquent because of all the practice I’ve unfortunately had.‘Nuff Said! was on from 1993 to 2002 and I did comics segments on other shows until 2006. I got a lot of practice putting the emotional into words. I’d trade in all that practice and resulting eloquence to still have those folks with us.
I think there’s a lot we can get from what has already happened, and yet sometimes the people who created things are less known than people who re-use them. That’s not right and there’s no need to re-invent the wheel when we have wheels right here. Credit where credit is due. Some people only pay attention when someone passes away. As in the Joni Mitchell song, “Don’t it always seem to go, that we don’t know what we’ve got ‘til it’s gone.”
9) What are your views on the role of technology and online/web-comics? Is there any online series that has captured your attention?
I have a dial-up modem and a steam-driven computer, so I’m limited in what I can see. I wish more people knew how to optimize graphics and did actual HTML instead of letting some piece of software do the web coding for them. That said, it makes Argon Zark even more impressive because I can actually read that one and I enjoy it and it’s a wonderful success story for online comics creators.
I think the web is incredibly important for independent comics. It’s difficult and expensive to publish on paper due to distribution problems. But creative people will always create. Always! The web makes it easier and cheaper and a place to have your stuff out there. If you can take criticism, it’s also a place to learn how to be better. The web has pretty much replaced APAs and they’d pretty much replaced fanzines as places for people to hone their craft (that’s where I learned). When you get good, the fans you develop will let you know when to publish a dead tree edition of your work. They’ll demand it! It’s up to you to decide when you’ve had enough of those demands to go to paper. But you have to have regular content!
10) Do you feel any moral obligation as a writer/interviewer/speaker to educate your audience; and if so, where do you feel this came from?
Not really. Judging by the second part of your question, that might surprise you. The education is there in an interview because hearing about how a creator creates is going to teach you something whether you do the same thing they do or not. My “job,” if you will, is to make it interesting so a listener stays until the end of the interview or a reader reads the last page of the story. I enjoy learning new things and so I write and interview that way.
I use “real facts” in my stories so you’re bound to learn something when you read them unless you already knew whatever fact I use, but I don’t necessarily write stories for educational purposes. If the story has baseball in it, I want it to be real baseball, not some made up version of it. If you didn’t know about whatever tidbit of baseball happens to be in the story, the story is now educational for you, but I didn’t set out for that. I usually don’t like stories where you have to check your brain at the door when you start whether it’s a movie, a TV show, a novel or a comic book. That’s where it comes from, I guess. I dunno if I’d call it a moral obligation. An ethical one, maybe. It should be real. The dialogue should feel as if it’s a real person. The setting should feel as if it’s a real place. The situation should feel as if it could really happen. Even if it’s for a piece of fiction.
11) Your story DeathStorm in Psychosis #2 is heavily researched, how much influence do you feel that has on the suspension of disbelief?
This is an extension of the previous question and answer.
DeathStorm has real environmental science in it and it should. The story is about a hurricane hitting a barrier island. The setting should be like a real barrier island that does what barrier islands do in real life. There’s a reason they’re called barrier islands. They have a role in the environment. A hurricane should behave like a real hurricane. The suspense in the story is less believable and less intense if it doesn’t. I’m lucky enough to have met former NASA meteorologist Tom Wysmuller in the course of doing Eco-Logic, my environmental radio show, and he was gracious enough to look over my script to make sure the science in it was accurate. Very little needed to be changed, but I changed what he told me to. I also used his dialogue for the meteorologist character in the story and artist Hector Rodriguez used his image on page 6.
How hurricanes behave in modern life is also going to affect the motivation of the characters in the story. Different people react differently, but the reader should know enough about the characters to believe their actions are justified by their motivations. How they use the information “Tom” provides in his “TV interview” will differ from person to person. The more realistic the story is, from the background details to the setting to the characterization to the science to the plot itself, the less disbelief has to be suspended. The biggest hurdle for me as writer is that since the readers know they’re reading a horror comic, I had to find a way to still give them a good ending without throwing away all the realism I built up. Judging from the reaction I got as I watched a young man read the comic at the last Big Apple Con, I succeeded at least with him. What an expression he had!
12) Of all the roles you’ve filled in the comics industry, which ones do you most want to pursue over the next five years?
I’d like to do more writing and more interviewing, but for something closer to a livable wage. Doing an Elseworlds or What If story for the mainstream that takes place in some of my favorite periods and locations in history would be fun.
My current project is helping organize and then m.c-ing a panel of experts on solar energy (four installers and one policy expert) that will be in Manhattan the evening of Jan. 9th . (7 P.M., Friends Meeting House, 15th St between 2nd & 3rd Ave.)
Most of my projects get mentioned on my web page.
Conducted in December 2007
And listen to Eco-Logic! Past shows are archived and I have direct links on my web site.
Eco-Logic, WBAI 99.5FM, NYC
http://www.comicbookradioshow.com/eco-logic.html (environmental radio show)
http://www.comicbookradioshow.com/ecoglold.html (list of past shows, podcasts & temporary archives and links to hear them)
http://www.comicbookradioshow.com/ra3.html (list of some permanently archived shows and links to hear them)
WBAI is a "50,000 watt" station in the Pacifica network broadcast from the Empire State Building so our signal gets to New Haven, Trenton, Putnam County and the Poconoes and on the internet live stream and podcasts even further, of course.
When the air or water are clean, thank an environmentalist. If not, become one. 'Nuff Said!