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Comic Book Legends: Roger Stern

From FOOM to Phantom to Spider-Man and beyond

By Kurt Anthony Krug     August 12, 2009


Hobgoblin arrives in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #238 (slideshow)
© Mania

Roger Stern was one of the most prolific writers in the comics medium during the 1980s and 1990s – and is still going strong. He worked as an editor for Marvel briefly, editing for Uncanny X-Men during the legendary Chris Claremont/John Byrne run. He also made his mark, writing Amazing Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, Captain America (with Byrne as his collaborator), The Avengers, West Coast Avengers, Spectacular Spider-Man, Superman, Action Comics. Perhaps his two notable creations is the second Captain Marvel (Monica Rambeau) and the Hobgoblin.

Mania: How did you break into the medium? I know you worked for a fanzine, which got you a foot in the door at Marvel, right?

RS: In a way. In the early '70s I met Bob Layton, and several other central Indiana comics fans. Together we produced a fanzine called CPL (short for Contemporary Pictorial Literature), and that led to our producing the original Charlton Bullseye as a sort of out-of-house promotional fanzine for Charlton Comics. My work on CPL led to Tony Isabella hiring me to write articles for FOOM, Marvel's old in-house fanzine. Enough people knew about me that I was eventually offered a chance to test for a staff job at Marvel.

Mania: Your first professional sale was what?

RS: Technically, it was probably that first article for FOOM. The first comics story I sold was a script for Charlton’s Phantom. That comic was canceled long before the story could be drawn, but the check cleared, so that counts as a sale.

Mania:You wrote Amazing Spider-Man for several years. One of your greatest contributions to the Marvel pantheon of characters is the Hobgoblin. Was it always your intention to have him be Roderick Kingsley?

RS: Yes, I realized that Kingsley was the Hobgoblin as I was writing the script for Amazing Spider-Man #238.

Mania: What inspired you to create the Hobgoblin? Word is that you didn’t want to bring back Norman Osborn (which Marvel did years later) and try to do a different spin on the Goblins?

RS: I wanted to introduce some new Spider-Man villains, but a lot of the readers at that time wanted to see his old villains return -- again and again and again. And the villain they requested more than any other was the Green Goblin. But, as you noted, Norman was then dead. There had already been appearances by two phony Green Goblins – Harry Osborn and Bart Hamilton – but neither of them had possessed the original Goblin's super-strength.

I have to admit, it never occurred to me to try resurrecting Norman. Instead, I hit on the idea of creating a new villain who would steal the Green Goblin's gear and assume some of his methods of operation…and eventually, the Goblin's super-strength. The major difference was in personality. The Goblin was pretty much clinically insane. The Hobgoblin was coldly calculating and very, very sane…which, if you think about it, made him spookier.

Aside from the gear, the thing that made the Hobgoblin most like the Green Goblin, was the mystery of who he was…or might be. I always thought that the best part of the Green Goblin shtick was that – originally – even the readers didn't know who he was. So, I was determined to keep the Hobgoblin a mystery man for as long as I could.

Mania: The Hobgoblin became a big mess after you left. Tom DeFalco wanted Richard Fisk to be the Hobgoblin and Roderick Kingsley to be the Rose, something he told me in an interview. Eventually, he left the book and Ned Leeds was "revealed" as the man behind the mask. Yet you had a chance to come back and implement your original vision for the character, which you did and did it in such a way that you didn’t thumb your nose at those stories. How did that opportunity come about?

RS: That was all thanks to Tom Brevoort and Glenn Greenberg. They'd been trying to lure me back to Marvel, and the Hobgoblin project was the thing that really clicked.

When I first read Amazing Spider-Man #289, I immediately saw the problem with the “revelation” that Ned Leeds had been the Hobgoblin. The way that Ned had been killed was proof that he couldn’t have been the Hobgoblin. Over the years since that issue came out, I’d occasionally cross paths with Marvel editors and mention that the story had a few holes in it, holes that were fixable. But it was Glenn and Tom who finally said, “Okay, prove it.”

Mania: Did you ever expect that youd be writing a story where Norman and Kingsley meet?

RS: Well, I assisted in plotting such a meeting for Spectacular Spider-Man # 259-261, but it was Glenn (Greenberg) who did most of the heavy lifting and all of the scripting on that one.

I would love to write a real knockdown, drag-out fight between Norman-as-the-Green- Goblin and Rod-as-Hobgoblin. But at the moment Norman is pretty busy being the Marvel Universe's answer to Dick Cheney, so such an encounter is probably not going to happen any time soon. Meanwhile, Roderick Kingsley is drinking Margaritas on some beach in the Caribbean, just biding his time. Who knows what the future will bring?

Mania: Your other significant contribution to the Marvel pantheon of characters is Captain Marvel II (Monica Rambeau). What was the inspiration behind her creation? And why make the new Captain Marvel a woman?

RS: Jim Starlin had written an end to Captain Mar-Vell in The Death of Captain Marvel graphic novel, and there was some interest in seeing a new Captain Marvel created for the company. So, I offered to come up with a new character to fill the bill.

Anyway, while I was developing ideas for a new character, my wife Carmela rightly pointed out that “Captain Marvel” is a gender-neutral name. That got me thinking about making the new Captain a woman. And then, I remembered an old joke that I'd heard during the height of the '60s Civil Rights Movement… a bigot recovering from a near-death experience. As the bigot sat wide-eyed in his hospital bed, he told his friends, “I saw God!” And when his friends ask what God was like, he replied, “Well, she's black…and she's pissed off.”

Monica Rambeau, of course, isn't really [mad] but she does not suffer fools gladly.

Anyway, that was the inspiration for Captain Marvel. Once I knew who she was and had figured out what her powers would be, everything came together. Marvel's editors liked my concepts and so it was decided that we'd introduce her in an Amazing Spider-Man Annual. I always wanted Monica to be a hero in the Marvel tradition – a normal person who suddenly had incredible powers thrust upon her – like Spider-Man before her.

Mania: Why is that legacy heroes don’t seem to work? For example, the Julia Carpenter version of Spider-Woman, the Sharon Ventura version of Ms. Marvel. It seems the original comes back in one form or another and the second person to adopt the name is shuffled out into the background.

RS: I don't think that is always the case. Barry Allen and Hal Jordan are both legacy heroes. Ted Kord was much better known as the Blue Beetle than was Dan Garrett. And I'd dare say that Ray Palmer was a more popular Atom than Al Pratt. It's all a matter of how the characters are presented.

Mania: Captain Marvel was a solid Avenger. Was it your plan to always make her team leader? You showed her growth as someone coping with her new powers, to becoming a solid member of the Avengers, to becoming team leader. Comment?

RS: I introduced Monica with the idea that she would go on to become an Avenger… though I didn't realize at the time that I would go on to write the Avengers. It just luck that I had the opportunity to guide her early career as a super-hero.

My initial hope was that if Monica gained enough following as a member of the Avengers, maybe I would get to spin her off into her own book. Her becoming group leader wasn't really planned so much as it was something that just grew naturally while I was writing the Avengers.

Mania: I’m sorry to have to ask you this because Lord knows you’ve rehashed it many times. But why were you fired from Avengers? Word is you and your editor disagreed over storylines. One rumor is he wanted you to make Captain America team leader, replacing Monica as someone who is incompetent.

RS: Something like that. I was asked to replace Captain Marvel with Captain America. And while I like Captain America a lot, I thought that unwise. I sent editorial a memo pointing out that dumping Captain Marvel at that time would look both racist and sexist. I suggested that we rethink that particular idea. Instead, I received a message that I was fired.

Mania: What’s ironic about this whole thing is that after you were fired from the book, Cap still didn’t lead the Avengers, much less return to them because he quit being Cap as seen in Captain America #332-350. That didn’t make any sense. Comment?

RS: I wasn't privy to any decisions made after I was fired, so I don't know why any of that happened.

Mania: Had you remained on the book, what were some of your plans?

RS: After all these years, I don't recall much, but I'd hoped to feature Loki in issue #300. And I'd gotten tentative approval to have Power Man join the team, resolving the loose threads from the last issue of Power Man & Iron Fist. Luke was going to be cleared of Iron Fist's murder. I planned to reveal that Fist's old enemy Master Khan – in the guise of Tyrone King – had framed Luke. I passed that scenario off to John (Byrne) who later used it in the Namor book.

Mania: What inspired you to create the West Coast Avengers?

RS: That was a project Mark Gruenwald and I came up with on the road, at a convention in Rome, Georgia. Mark wanted me to come up with a miniseries, and I wanted to nail down some of the non-active Avengers. At the time, there were a couple dozen Avengers or former Avengers floating around. I'd tried to limit the number of active members in any given issue, just to avoid writing crowd-scene comics, but I had plans for most of the characters who didn’t have their own books. Unfortunately, every time I turned around, another writer was glomming onto one or more of them for a miniseries, often for someone other than the Avengers editor...so it was getting harder and harder to keep track of what was being done to our cast.

My solution to the problem was a miniseries that became the West Coast Avengers. The original idea was that we'd establish a second branch of the team in California. Once the miniseries was over, I’d have the members of both branches to draw on for stories. I would assemble teams of select Avengers for whatever challenge there was to face.

Unfortunately, things didn't work out that way.

Mania: When the WCA got a monthly series, why didn’t you write it?

RS: It was never offered to me. The miniseries had sold very well, and the first I heard about the on-going West Coast Avengers series, it was already a done deal with Steve Englehart as the writer. As a result, I had to scrap plans for about a year’s worth of stories. It took me months to get caught back up.

Mind you, Steve had just returned to Marvel, and it obviously made sense to have him write a series that might recapture what he’d done with the Avengers in the ’70s. It wasn't his fault.

But Editorial could have handled things better.

Mania: After you left Marvel in the 1980s, you went to DC and wrote Superman. What was your role in the much-vaunted “Death of Superman” storyline?

RS: My role was much what it was all during my tenure on Superman. I was writing stories for Action Comics at the time, but I contributed ideas to the entire line of Super-titles. We all did. There were about a dozen writers and artists working on the Superman titles, and we all used to gather, once or twice a year, for a meeting to discuss plans and brainstorm ideas for the next year’s worth of stories. We called these meetings the “Super-Summits.”

When we got together to outline the books that included Superman #75 and Adventures of Superman #500, we thought that we were going to plan the wedding of Clark Kent and Lois Lane. That didn’t happen because Warner Brothers had gotten the green light to produce the Lois & Clark television series for ABC. Warner Brothers didn’t mind us having Clark and Lois marry, just as long as they got to set the stage for the wedding first on TV.

And as that show wasn't even on the air yet, we had to devise something completely different for Superman #75.

On the first day of the meeting, Jerry Ordway joked, “We could always kill him.” Jerry would often say that when we were stuck for ideas, but this time we didn't laugh.

From that humble beginning, our stories grew.

Mania: Why did you leave Superman?

RS: Well, I did write him for 10 years, after all. In that time, I worked on all five titles: Superman, Adventures of Superman, Action Comics, Superman: Man of Steel, andtoward the end of my run – Superman: Man of Tomorrow, which was a more-or-less quarterly book, published during those months that had a fifth Wednesday. The problem there was that the book's schedule kept getting disrupted by DC's Fifth-Week Special publications. As a result, I had fewer and fewer opportunities to write any Superman stories. And then, the JLA office started dictating how Lex Luthor should be written. I thought that unwise, so I chose to leave the series before it became a train wreck.

Mania: In the late 1990s, you wrote for Marvel again – Avengers Two: Wonder Man & The Beast, Avengers Forever, Avengers Infinity, Avengers # 1½, Iron Man. How did this come about?

RS: At the time, DC had passed on several proposals I'd made, and Marvel was calling with offers of work. And the work Marvel offered was very appealing. I just wish there was more of it.

Mania: Would you ever return to a monthly series?

RS: Under the right circumstances, I'd love to. I miss the rhythms of writing stories on a monthly basis. When you're in that zone, stories just flow.

Mania: What are you currently working on?

RS: I recently had three projects – Amazing Spider-Man Family #7, Young Allies #1, and Captain America #600 – on sale in the same week. When I took the assignments, I didn't realize that they'd all be out there at the same time, it just worked out that way.

Aside from that, I have a 3-issue story in the works for Amazing Spider-Man, and there will perhaps be a few more stories after that. We'll all just have to wait and see.

COMMENTS AND RESPONSES

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VillageIdiotPrime 8/12/2009 8:53:49 AM

Very nice interview!

Loved WCA before it got all stupid in the 90's.  He gave some great backstory into stories that I read back then....

Good job.

gauleyboy420 8/12/2009 10:22:56 AM

nice interview indeed! I must've read so much of his work, but back at that age the only name I looked at on the cover was the superhero, and the artist. Sad really,

Anyway Roger Stern enetertained me for a long long time,

Thanks

joeybaloney 8/13/2009 4:08:45 AM

 Roger's Spider-man has always been my favorite. He truly knew how to write him with the fun inherent in the character. There has been some great Spidey stuff since (nothing post OMD obviously) but no one has ever captured Spidey as good as he did IMO. Great interview. Thanks!

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