Comic Book Biography: ROGER STERN

roger-sternRoger Stern has done everything you can do in comics, from fanzines, to editing. From writing comics to writing novels about them. Stern was nice enough to take time out to answer some questions from First Comics News’ Rik Offenberger.

First Comics News: Your first published work was with “Contemporary Pictorial Literature.” Can you explain CPL to our readers?

Roger Stern: Where to begin?

Once upon a time there were these amateur-produced magazines about comics (and before them, about science fiction) called fanzines. They were mainly produced as a labor of love, because there certainly wasn’t much monetary profit involved. Fanzines came in all shapes and sizes, from tabloid to mini-comic.

CPL was at the smaller end of the spectrum — only 5.5″ by 8.5″, a little taller than “Readers Digest” or the old “TV Guide” – and ran about 32-36 pages. It was a mix of articles, art, interviews, and stories by people like John Byrne, Tony Isabella, Don Maitz, Larry Brnicky, Bob Layton, and yours truly…all devoted to our love of comics.

Of course, fanzines live on today in the form of “Alter Ego,” “The Jack Kirby Collector,” “Back Issue,” and other such high-quality magazines.

1st: How do you get your work noticed in a fanzine?

Roger: Do you mean today? I couldn’t tell you.

Back then, my day job involved writing commercial copy, and in my spare time I was helping Bob Layton produce CPL. One of the ways I helped was by writing little essays and, later, comic strips. Once they were published, the readers were the ones who took notice…and luckily they liked my writing, so I got to produce more.

1st: How did this lead into Charlton Comics?

Roger: Those of us working on CPL had a lot of affection for the Charlton Comics of the 1960s – especially those produced by Mssrs. Ditko, Giordano, Aparo, Boyette, et al – and the later comics that Nick Cuti and Joe Staton were creating. We eventually devoted a double-sized issue of CPL to a folio of illustrations and articles about the Charlton characters. And that led to editor Bob Layton getting Charlton’s blessing to produce the “Charlton Bullseye” fanzine.

1st: Your first published comics story was a Steve Ditko “Captain Atom” story. As a newcomer, how did you get to work with Steve Ditko?

Roger: Well, I didn’t really work with Ditko. He had already plotted and penciled that story for the “Captain Atom” comic book. It was still on the shelf at Charlton and they turned it over to Bob. And then Bob turned it over to me to script because 1) at the time he didn’t know how to contact Dave Kaler who had been the previous “Captain Atom” writer, and 2) he could pay me in back issues of CPL.

And here’s the interesting thing about that story: there was no written plot. All I had to go by were the penciled pages. But, you know, those pages were all I needed. It was Ditko! The storytelling was so great, you could tell exactly what was going on. I just wish I could go back and rewrite it now, knowing what I’ve since learned about the craft of writing.

I did eventually meet Ditko at Marvel, and even wound up working with him for real. He drew an “Avengers Annual” that I wrote. And I scripted the first few issues of his “Speedball” series.

1st: How did CPL, lead you to “Foom” at Marvel?

Roger: The late Duffy Vohland, who had also worked on CPL, recommended me to Tony Isabella, who was then the editor of “Foom.” Tony knew of my writing from his own fanzine days, and asked me write a couple articles. Those were well enough received that I was asked to write more.

1st: Marvel was trying to create an in-house fanzine. What were the differences working on a fanzine on your own and at Marvel?

Roger: Actually, Marvel already had started “Foom,” at first under the auspices of Jim Steranko, and later under the direction of Marvel’s editorial bullpen. And I wasn’t at Marvel when I first started writing for “Foom” (that came later); I was still living and working in Indiana.

The only real difference was that I was writing solely about Marvel characters for “Foom.”

1st: You started at Marvel as an assistant editor. What does the assistant’s job involve?

Roger: At the time, my job involved proofreading letters pages and selecting stories to be reprinted. I couldn’t tell you what an assistant editor’s job entails these days. It probably varies with each office and each individual.

1st: Eventually you were the editor on John Byrne’s and Bob Layton’s comics. How was this different than working with them on CPL?

Roger: Well, for one thing, we were all getting paid. Aside from that, the major difference was that on CPL I was really just one of the gang. When I was an editor at Marvel, I was in charge of getting the books produced on time. I had to be the one to bug freelancers about deadlines. Not that I ever had that problem with John or Bob.

1st: You wrote the “Hulk” at the time that Lou Ferrigno was the Hulk on television. What type of impact did this have on the way you handled the Hulk?

Roger: There was really very little impact on the way I wrote the stories. I was following the continuity that had begun with Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and been developed by the dozen or so writers and artists who had followed them.

But the existence of the Hulk television show undoubtedly helped sales of the comics. They didn’t splash that “Marvel’s TV Sensation!” banner across the covers just because they thought it looked nice.

1st: The “Hulk” television show was patterned after the Fugitive, while the comic version was more like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Was there any push by Marvel to include more of the television-like elements, making the Hulk less verbal?

Roger: No, not at all. In fact, I was usually too busy to watch the series. VCRs weren’t that common at the time. I did see the first couple of made-for-television movies, and they weren’t bad, considering the limited special effects. As I recall, the writing and acting were pretty good. But I was working in a different medium and my special effects were unlimited — all I had to do was ask Sal Buscema to draw the Hulk ripping into a skyscraper, and there it was!

Still, as I said, the fact that the Hulk was on TV certainly helped his recognition factor. Years after my run on the “Hulk,” I met Lou Ferrigno on the convention circuit and thanked him for helping boost sales on my first major series.

1st: You had a long run on “Doctor Strange.” What made this character interesting to you?

Roger: He was the first comics character who really had me accepting the concept of “magic.” That was mainly thanks to Lee and Ditko. Their work got me to buy into Doc’s world. Plus, he and Tony Stark were the first comics heroes I’d ever encountered who had moustaches.

1st: Why do you think that Marvel has had difficulty maintaining an ongoing “Doctor Strange” series?

Roger: The good Doctor is not a slam-bang super-hero, so right off the bat he’s very different from the majority of the Marvel characters. And most of the Marvel heroes have science-based (or pseudo-science-based) origins. Despite its early pulpish feel, “Doctor Strange” has generally been a much more esoteric strip, far removed from the other Marvel heroes…and some creative teams have tried to pull it even farther away.

1st: You had a memorable five year run on the “Avengers ” Tell us how you got the original assignment?

Roger: I got the assignment by asking for it. In those days, there was no lengthy proposal process to go through. Usually an editor just asked a writer to take on a title, or the writer approached the editor. I had heard that there was going to be a vacancy on the “Avengers ,” so I called Mark Gruenwald and threw my hat in the ring. That was the first time that I had actively asked to write a particular title at Marvel, and I was lucky enough to get it. .

1st: What do you see as the differences between the Avengers and all the other comic book super hero teams?

Roger: The Avengers is an organization with a charter and by-laws and the whole nine yards…as opposed to the Fantastic Four, which is sort of an extended family, and the X-Men, which started out as a school before turning into a support group or an underground movement or whatever it is these days.

The Avengers was founded by individual heroes who had united against a common threat, and saw the advantages of joining in a more formal basis. And, of course, no matter how many times their roster changed, they remained Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.

1st: With a roster as large as the Avengers how would you decide who should be on the team at any given time?

Roger: A lot of that was out of my hands. I would have been happy to have Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor as regulars, but their own titles came first, and they were often off-limits to me for months — sometimes years, it seemed — at a time. It was more a matter of seeing who was available and putting together interesting combinations of heroes.

1st: What was it like to return to the “Avengers,” all those years later in “Avengers Forever?”

Roger: That was a lot of fun. Luckily, Kurt (Busiek) had already assembled a great team of Avengers from various points in time. And, of course, he did all the heavy lifting.

1st: Any chance we will see more Avengers work from you in the future?

Roger: I would never say never…but I haven’t followed the book in some years. I hear that some radical changes have been made to the team. If asked, I would have to see if I liked what had been done, and what I would be allowed to do with the book…if I still wanted to write it. I wouldn’t want to take on the assignment just for a paycheck.

1st: You had a very well received but short run on “Captain America.” What cut it short?

Roger: Changes in editorial procedures and a few misunderstandings brought on by a lack of communication. But it was fun while it lasted.

1st: You worked on both “Amazing Spider-Man” and “Spectacular Spider-Man.” What was it like to work on Spider-Man?

Roger: Great, great fun, though a little intimidating at first. Spider-Man was the first Marvel character who really caught my attention as a reader.

1st: Were the stories for “Amazing Spider-Man” handled different then “Spectacular? ”

Roger: Not really, no. I just continued on the way I’d been writing. What was different was that, by the time Tom DeFalco asked me to become the writer of “Amazing,” I was a little more experienced and confident. And I had John Romita Jr. to draw my stores on a regular basis! What could be better?

1st: You co-created the Hobgoblin with John Romita Jr.. How much freedom were you given to create new characters?

Roger: I had as much freedom as I wanted. Marvel was happy to have the new characters, and they even started granting creators’ royalties to writers and artists. Whenever there’s a new Hobgoblin toy, for instance, JRjr and I see a little money…eventually.

1st: You had been exclusively at Marvel from 1975 until 1988 when you left Marvel for DC. Why did you leave?

Roger: I was fired from the Avengers, and with the exception of Jim Salicrup, no Marvel editor would return my calls. Jim very kindly offered me a Spider-Man assignment, but Peter Parker had just gotten married to Mary Jane Watson, which was — I thought then, and still do – just a terrible move that ignored every good thing that had been developed for both characters.

And since Marvel wasn’t about to let me write a story where they both woke up and discovered that it was all a bad dream, I accepted an offer of work from DC.

1st: You worked on some of the most important Superman stories of the day. How did the “Death of Superman” come about?

Roger: That came about because management wanted us to extend Clark’s and Lois’s engagement.

In 1992, all of us Superman writers and artists showed up at our annual story conference — we called ’em Super-Summits — thinking that we were going to plan a wedding for “Superman” #75. But Warner Brothers had gotten a go from ABC to produce a new television series that became “Lois & Clark.” And Warners — DC’s big daddy — didn’t want us to marry Lois and Clark before they did on TV. So, we had to come up with something else.

And that something else was the “Death of Superman.” I could go on and on about how we came up with the idea, but it’s already been covered in print many times over.

1st: How did you end up writing the novel, “The Death and Life of Superman?”

Roger: That was thanks to Mike Carlin, who thought that it would be best to have someone on the inside, someone already familiar with the story, write the novelization. He suggested me to the appropriate people. I said, “Yes,” and thence began four-and-a-half months of intensive writing.

1st: Are there any other novels on the horizon?

Roger: Besides the three I’ve already written? [“Smallville: Strange Visitors” was published by Warner Books in 2002, “The Death and Life of Superman” was re-released in a special edition by Barnes & Noble Books in 2004, and “Superman: The Never-Ending Battle” was published by Pocket Books just this year.] I have ideas for several novels taking form in the back corners of my subconscious, but nothing I can talk about just yet.

1st: You helped bring the Atom back into the mainstream DC Universe. Was this an idea you pitched or did DC come to you and ask you to bring him back?

Roger: The latter. After the “Sword of the Atom” miniseries and a few specials, I was asked to come up with a way to bring the Atom back as more of a super-hero.

1st: Why did you leave the series in less than a year?

Roger: Wasn’t it exactly a year? I wrote the “Secret Origins” story and the first eleven issues, and there were two more that I plotted with my youthful protégé Tom Peyer. Yeah, had to have been at least a year.

Anyway, I left the Atom in Young Master Peyer’s capable hands to concentrate on “Superman” and to the “Starman” book that I’d co-created with Tom Lyle.

1st: After working on the Atom, do you think he is one of those second-string heroes that is a great team player, but not strong enough to carry his own title?

Roger: Not at all. With the right approach, the right creative team, and a decent amount or promotion, I think the Atom could easily be a star character. But then, that’s the case with most characters.

1st: You created a new version of Starman, how did this come about?

Roger: I got a call one day from Mike Gold, who was then an editor at DC, asking me if I was interested in writing a new series. He told me that DC wanted to launch a new “Starman” series, and encouraged me to start with the name and go from there.

1st: Why did you separate the new Starman from any connection to the previous Starmen?

Roger: That was the way my editors wanted it…at least, at first.

1st: What brought you back to Marvel?

Roger: Tom Brevoort and Glenn Greenberg. Those two guys were after me for months to write a book for them. They first approached me when they needed a new writer for the “New Warriors,” but the book had been around for over four years at that point, and I’d never read it. Then they offered me a new title: “Untold Tales of Spider-Man.” I was intrigued by the idea, but told them that I thought Kurt Busiek would be a better choice, as he’d already researched that era for Marvels.

Eventually, they pulled me in with “Marvel Universe.” But, alas, that book wasn’t as successful in the United States as it was in Europe.

1st: How did “Lost Generation” come about?

Roger: That series grew out of a long string of conversations between John Byrne and me. We would occasionally talk about “Marvel Time,” which is the concept that everything that’s happened in the Marvel Universe since the origin of the Fantastic Four took place in the last ten years. And since “Fantastic Four” #1 was originally published in 1961, that naturally meant the gap in time between ’61 and 10-years-ago kept growing. The gap was over thirty years by that point. After a while, it occurred to us that a whole generation of super-heroes could have come along — and disappeared — within that gap. The more we talked, the more heroes we came up with. And Marvel liked the idea enough to have us produce a 12-issue series about them.

“Lost Generation” was a lot of fun. I’d like to revisit those characters some day.

1st: How did you end up scripting “Iron Man?”

Roger: That was at Kurt Busiek’s instigation. He was going through a spell of ill health, and needed someone to lend a hand on “Iron Man” and “Avengers Forever.” We tag-teamed the plots, then I scripted “Iron Man.” It was a similar deal on “Avengers Forever” — only there, Kurt handled the scripting.

1st: You have written a large number of scripts alone, but you have also co-written with Len Wein, John Byrne, Kurt Busiek, and even your wife Carmela. Do you prefer to collaborate or write alone?

Roger: Well, unless you’re a writer/artist, in comics you’re always collaborating with someone. I think that it really all depends upon the assignment. I’ve enjoyed writing on my own and I’ve enjoyed my collaborations. I’ve been lucky in having the opportunity to work with both more seasoned writers and talented newcomers. I know that I’ve learned things from each experience, and that’s helped me grow in my own writing.

1st: What do you do when you aren’t writing comics?

Roger: These days, I’m usually looking for my next assignment. If you know anyone who’s hiring, let me know.

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