Matt Wagner, creator of Grendel and Mage and current co-writer on Django / Zorro with Quentin Tarantino, did a r/comicbooks AMA recently. We have the highlight of that session.
Hello Mr. Wagner! I've been a massive Grendel fan for years now and wanted to say that seeing Hunter Rose face off against The Shadow has been a dream come true! My question is what has it been like working with Quentin Tarantino on Django/Zorro? Is he real hands on or has he just provided basic plot and character direction?
This whole project came about as the fevered dream child of Dynamite publisher, Nick Barrucci, and Quentin's producer, Reggie Hudlin, who had known each other for years and somehow concocted this idea shortly after DJANGO UNCHAINED was initially released. Nick called me and asked if I'd be interested in co-writing such a project and I remember thinking "Pfft. Well that's NEVER gonna really happened" but agreed to be onboard should it ever come to fruition. Six or seven months go by and I'd pretty much forgotten all about it when Nick calls me out of the blue and says, "We've given Quentin all of your Zorro books. He LOVES them and wants to fly down and meet with him." Kinda surreal but a couple of days later I found myself pulling up to the gate of Quentin's house. We hit it off right from the get-go…in fact, felt like we'd known each other for years. That first meeting was not a get-to-know-you session but also a story jam. Whenever QT starts to work with someone, he likes to screen movies so that you both get in the same headspace. I was there two days and we watched two film and two serial chapters, breaking between each to hand on his patio/deck and riff on narrative ideas and character portrayals. There was a lot of "YES! I love that!" flying back and forth and we both felt a lot of creative synergy. So much so that I went back to my hotel that first night and wrote the first five pages of script in a burst of gotta-get-this-down excitement. After that, I went home and started to outline the general story. Some time later, I went back down to LA (I'm in the Portland area) and we had another story session, this time more specific. I had a bunch of motifs outlined and a bunch of questions that we needed to work out together. Whereas our first meeting had a certain party kinda vibe, this time was all about the business of the story. We were ON it. But, once again, we proved to be totally in sync and there was a lot of that same "I love it" exchange. Since then, it's pretty much been more of the same. He's been busy gearing up for his next film so all of our communication's been via email. But he loves the way the series is progressing and I've gotta agree. I'm currently writing the script for issue #5.
It seems to me that in your long career in comics, you've been drawn to the more pulp-y characters: Batman, Zorro, The Shadow, and The Wesley Dodd Sandman … can you tell us what attracts you to these characters?
I'm an only child so I guess that's why I'm drawn to the "lone avenger" sort of characters. My parents were slightly older…from the WWII generation…so I have what I like call an inherited nostalgia for those characters. But yeah, looking at that list…cloaks, hats, masks, nighttime. There is a definite similarity. I also just really love those early characters as they seem rather pure and unvarnished. There wasn't really a history of this sort of narrative that the early creators were adding to…they were making up as they went along. As a result, the stories, characters and situations just seem to raw and unfettered. I consider myself lucky to have had the opportunity to play with and help redefine so many of the characters that meant so much to me as a young reader. AND to have that chance to present my OWN character (Grendel) facing off with two of my all-time favorites, Batman and The Shadow.
Quentin and I really clicked and so collaborating on this has proven remarkably easy. We're about the same age so a lot of our cultural touchstones are really similar. The difference is that he's a film-maker who loves comics and I'm a comic-creator who loves film. Here's an example of our mutual likes; when I was visiting him for the first time, he'd just gotten back from the Comic Con in San Diego. He'd been on a bit of a buying spree, snatching up stacks and stacks of the over-sized B&W mags that Marvel published during the 70s. So, titles like; SAVAGE TALES, DRACULA LIVES, TALES OF THE ZOMBIE, DEADLY HANDS OF KUNG FU, etc… I fucking LOVED those as a kid!! To understand if you're not of that era…Marvel moved into publishing comics at that size to compete with Warren Publishing's success with CREEPY, EERIE and VAMPIRELLA. Publishing at the over-sized magazine format meant that they didn't have to submit those books for approval by the highly-restrictive Comics Code Authority. As a result, they also weren't racked at the newsstand in the spinner racks with all the "regular" comics. They where up high on the shelves, often enticing close to the "men's" magazines so that even just flipping through them felt somewhat illicit…and thus, way cool! Anyway, we spent a good hour or so just geeking out over memories of those mags and comparing stories of buying them back in the day…and then sneaking them into the house so our parents didn't know!
Hello Mr. Wagner, what is your favourite comic book ? And why ?
Ha! My kids will tell you…I used to drive them nuts with this when they were little and they'd ask "Dad, what's your favorite movie? Favorite food? Favorite, etc…" And I'd always say, "I don't do favorites. I like just far too many things. I mean how do say this piece of art is necessarily better than that piece of art? Or that this utterly delicious meal is better than that totally scrumptious dinner? I used to tell them (again, drove them mad!), "Look…I have a favorite wife, a favorite son and a favorite daughter…and that's about it." For the record, got one of each of those. But…in this case I will single out a comic that I admire for many, many reasons–LONE WOLF & CUB by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima. I love it for the fact that's an epic of astounding length (something like 8000+ pages) all done by the same creative team, that it exemplifies a specific culture in all its historic glory, that it manages to be highly episodic and yet still retain an overarching saga that moves from beginning to middle to end, that it is exciting and gruesome and erotic and dismaying all at the same time, and that it portrays the grit and tragedy of the classic Hero's journey with a healthy dose of irony thrown in for good measure. It is a truly remarkable creative acheivement.
In the aftermath of two previous crossovers of Grendel facing off against Batman, I've had a lot of offers over the years to pair off my boy-in-black with any number of other characters. Always declined said offers with the thinking of…where do you go after freakin' BATMAN?! But then the opportunity to crossover with The Shadow arose and I finally had to say "yes". In fact, I think my exact answer was…"Aw, shit. I think I've gotta DRAW that one too!" I'm big Batman fan and have been for years. But I think I'm an even bigger Shadow fan. Plus, both of those characters make sense in crossing over with Grendel…they all bear a certain urbane-adventurer vibe. After this…I'd be hard pressed to think of another character that would appeal to me enough to tread these waters again.
I was a huge fan of your Madame Xanadu Vertigo series but (as far as I understand) it was a victim of the whole DC-not-wanting-any-DCU-characters-in-Vertigo-titles thing in preparation for the New 52.
If it did in fact get cancelled prematurely, was there another arc or two you'd have liked to get into before the series end?
I had a lot of fun on Madame X…even though I didn't really want to do the series at first. I mainly took on the gig as a favor to my old pal and brother-in-arms, Bob Schreck, whom I've known since Teddy Roosevelt was still alive (no, not really). He had just made the switch to working under the Verigo imprint and really wanted a heavy-hitter project using one of DC's in-house characters. I didn't really have much knowledge of Madame X, other than some beautiful images by Michael Kaluta. And I also didn't really see the potential in the artist he wanted to pair be with (which is highly unusual for me…I almost always choose the artist when I'm writing)–Amy Reeder, who's experience at that point was some manga-styled stuff for Tokyo Pop. "I dunno, Bob," I remember saying. "If I do this, I'm gonna be asking her to draw a whoooole lot of stuff she's never even thought of drawing before." Well, needless to say, I couldn't have been more fucking wrong about Amy. She stepped up the plate, took every scene and character I pitched at her and just knocked it outta the park! And she's continued to grow even after our collaboration ended. She's a really amazing artist and I was lucky to get the chance to work with her at such a stage in her career. I also didn't really see anything that immediately drew me to the character of Madame X…until I started to research her a bit. Once I discovered that, in DC continuity, she seemed to have a distrust bordering on hatred for the Phantom Stranger…I knew I had my hook, the human element that would let me tell her tale. Because, if she and the Stranger currently hated each other…that meant that at one point, they much have loved each other. You mentioned the DC/Vertigo verbotten crossover policy. I just totally ignored that and, from the very beginning, wove DCU stuff into her centuries-spanning tale; Etrigan, Alan Scott's lamp, Dr Fate's helmet, Zatara, Martian Manhunter. When the end came, when DC decided to can the book, I knew it was because they were going to absorb back into the DCU…so at least I got the chance to end our final story arc in a manner that basically prepped her as a character for such a move. As you mentioned…I did have one regret, one storyline I wanted to but didn't get the chance to–Michael Kaluta wanted draw another arc (he drew the second storyline, EXODUS NOIR). And, oh MAN! I had two really great ideas that will never see the light of day. The last time I saw Michael, I lamented about this fact and started to tell him the cool scenario I had imagined. But he stopped me and wouldn't let me continue…"I don't want to hear about a story I'm NEVER going to get to draw," he said. Which, truthfully, I can understand. So, in deference to Mike…I've keep that one secret.
I'm a huge fan of your Zorro work with Francavilla and Co. (though I admit I haven't finished Zorro Rides Again yet). Is the Zorro of this story the same Zorro we saw in your previous work on the character, or have some modifications been made to make him fit into the kind of world Django lives in?
Thanks so much. I've obviously got a huge love for the character of Zorro and really enjoyed Isabel Allende's 2005 novel. When I first signed on to write Zorro for Dynamite, it was never meant to be a straight adaptation of her book. In the novel, which is rich with character and history, we don't get to experience Diego in his Zorro costume until the final 40-50 pages. Obviously, that just wasn't going to work in a comic book. So I treated the novel as a source from which I could cherry-pick the ideas I liked best and incorporate those into my version of the tale. But, truthfully, the same could be said of many other Zorro sources as well; the original 1919 novel THE CURSE OF CAPISTRANO, the many various film versions, etc… I felt like I was distilling these many different incarnations of Zorro into my own portrayal. And, yes…I consider the Diego in DJANG/ZORRO to be one and the same with the man I portrayed in both series, ZORRO and ZORRO RIDES AGAIN. One of the things that Quentin and I discussed though is how a life-time of leading a dual identity would have changed Diego. By the time frame of the Django/Zorro storyline, he's been playing the role of the entitled fop for so long…that's he's actually BECOME that guy to some degree. At heart, he's still the champion of justice and a master with both blade and whip. But he dooooes tend to like all the finery, the afternoon tea and cucumber sandwiches. I think it's an interesting concept; when does the man become the masquerade and when does the masquerade become the man?
For more on Django / Zorro #1, click here.