Tom DeFalco has had a long career in the comic book medium, serving as a writer and editor. In fact, he was editor-in-chief for Marvel Comics from 1987 to 1994, replacing Jim Shooter. He has also served as a writer for long periods of time on several Marvel titles, including Thor, Amazing Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, and the fan-favorite Spider-Girl (a character he co-created with longtime collaborator Ron Frenz).
In addition to Spider-Girl – his most famous contribution to the Marvel pantheon of characters – DeFalco, 58, also created/co-created many characters for Marvel, most notably Speed Ball, the New Warriors, Night Thrasher, Dazzler, Thunderstrike, Silver Sable, Iron Man 2020, the Puma, Code B.L.U.E., Dargo Ktor (the once and future Thor), Lyja the Skrull, American Dream, the Kickers, Inc., and many others too numerous to name here.
Along with Frenz, DeFalco will be in the Detroit area the weekend of May 15-17 as a guest of the Motor City Comic Con.
QUESTION: What was your first comic?
TOM DeFALCO (TD): I was 5 or 6 at the time. It was either a Batman comic or a Detective (Comics) comic. Anyway, the lead character was Batman. It’s funny, the image of Batman is still in my mind. I remember looking at Batman and he scared the hell outta me. I don’t recall who gave it to me. My first reaction was they (DC Comics) stole my idea. I used to collect comic strips, paste them onto loose paper, and make my comic books. I was shocked that somebody stole my idea (laughs).
When I was a kid, I read everything – Flash, Batman, Green Lantern, Richie Rich. My favorite thing was either Superboy or Jimmy Olsen. Jimmy was like me: he’d screw things up, use his signal watch, and Superman’d show up to fix it all. For me, it was my dad. I remember my first two Marvels: Fantastic Four #3 and #4. Those two just made me an instant Marvel fan and I never looked back.
Q: Did you always aspire to a career in comics?
TD: Here’s the funny part: Growing up as a kid, I always kinda knew gonna be some kind of writer, some kind of storyteller. I wanted to be Edgar Rice Burroughs when I grew up. I always focused on that stuff. When I was kid, the only good comics was stuff from Marvel. I figured since Stan Lee was writing ‘em all, I didn’t think you’d get a job in comics.
Q: How’d you break into the medium?
TD: I broke in with Archie. I graduated from college in 1972. There were no jobs for anybody… For a couple of weeks, I would religiously buy the New York Times and go to every job interview I could get. I found out most jobs were for secretary and sales people. I still can’t type (laughs).
I sent resumes to Marvel, DC, and Archie. This gentleman, Michael Silberkleit, saw the resume, handed it to editor Richard Goldwater. Richard gave me a call and told me to come down for job interview. There, I met Victor Gorelick (then the art director). He interviewed me and offered me a job in Archie editorial department.
I started reading mail – Betty & Veronica stuff. I proofread the comics. I’m probably the world’s worst proofreader, but did my best. I’d paste up covers, learn how to assemble the books, work the Photostat machine, and pretty much everything else. I had the benefit of an incredible education in terms of comic books because I did everything.
I often think of luckiest guy in creation because Victor taught me basics. At Archie, I got opportunity to do lot of things probably wouldn’t have had if I had been in a bigger operation. I learned how to color, learned how to letter. After being there for 5-6 months, I started to sell material to them. It started with one-page gags, then I got up to 5-page stories, and eventually 11-page stories.
From there, I freelanced for Charlton and DC. At DC, I met (editor) Joe Orlando. I did a 64-page story, “Super Juniors,” which introduced kid versions of superheroes. It became a little tiny book. Joe said to me, “Ever think of doing superhero stuff?”
“No, Joe, it looks too hard,” I said.
“It needs a plot, characterization, and doesn’t have to be funny. Making it funny is at least half the job and we pay you same rate.”
Q: How did you break into Marvel, which is where you spent most of your career?
TD: My first story for Marvel was in 1978 for an Avengers Annual. It was a 6-page Vision story. I came from Archie comics, so 6-page stories easy, 22-page stories were hard. (Then-EIC) Jim Shooter was very pleased with it.
“You have an emotional conflict and a physical conflict all in 6 pages,” he said. And I said, “Yeah, it’s supposed to be a story.”
Shooter said, “But most guys don’t put in emotional conflict” (laughs)
I was a freelancer for 5-6 months. Jim Shooter was reorganizing the editorial department and asked me if I’d like to be an editor. By that time, I didn’t work a staff job – which is 5 days per week – for years. I agreed to come in for a 6-month trial. Much to my surprise, 6 months had become 20 years.
Q: What was your biggest challenge as editor-in-chief of Marvel when you took over in 1987 after being Marvel’s Executive Editor for a few years?
TD: The biggest hassle as editor-in-chief is that it’s your job to be looking 2-3 years into the future. You’ve got to be designing titles that aren’t going to come out for 2 years and be that far ahead of the curve. I believe you need to have the editorial nose. Look at a project, sniff it, and it either smells like money or smells like something you don’t want to be smelling. You develop instincts on what can work and what can’t work.
Q: You were editor-in-chief when Marvel went public, yes? (NOTE: In 1991, Ronald Perelman took Marvel public on the New York Stock Exchange, overseeing a giant increase in the number of titles published by Marvel. However, the comics medium hit a bad slump in the mid-1990s and by 1996, Marvel went bankrupt.)
TD: Yes. What happened when the Perlman people bought Marvel, Corporate America became aware of comics. The corporate people looked at them and said, “Here’s a way to make big money.” Overnight, new companies would spring into existence.
These new companies would start by a few dozen of titles. Marvel was limited to the number of titles they could publish when they first began in 1961. The company could only produce 8 or so titles a month. It took years for Marvel to develop its universe, but all these new companies thought they could just appear on the scene with a dozen or so new titles. Starting a new universe out with 20 titles is not a good idea.
Retailers bought a lot of these new titles because they thought they'd make a killing. Unfortunately, they got stuck with most of them.
The biggest hassle was the industry fell for its own hype… “Everything is a success and we’re making tons of money.” Everyone lost sight of the fact that comics is a business of pennies. You make pennies here and pennies there. If you keep making pennies, that’s golden.
Q: Why did you leave your position as editor-in-chief? Word is you clashed with upper management on the direction of the company.
TD: I did over a number of key issues. Marvel eventually decided to get rid of me. They offered me a job overseas, but I decided to go back to being a full-time writer. They fired me and had to replace me with 8 people. When you’re the editor-in-chief for a company, it’s like being a football coach. If you have winning seasons, your job is secure; if you don’t have a winning season, you're out.
Q: You edited Amazing Spider-Man, then became writer in the mid-1980s, succeeding Roger Stern, yes?
TD: Yes. As far as I am concerned, after Stan Lee, Roger Stern does the best Spider-Man. As editor, I was privileged to work with Roger; it was such a joy working with him and reading his material – just being a part of that whole thing. I loved what Roger did with the book.
Q: You gave Mary Jane Watson, Spider-Man’s love interest, an origin, stating she came from a broken family. How’d that come about?
TD: Mary Jane was beautiful, but ditzy. Peter had better taste; it wasn’t just a surface thing. Shallow guys like us fall for MJ. Peter needs somebody with a lot more depth and we (Frenz and I) kept discussing what to do with her.
Q: You and Ron Frenz had the longest run on Thor (#383-459), which spanned 1987-93, following Walter Simonson who had a revered run on the book.
TD: Originally, we pitched for Daredevil, but (then-Daredevil editor) Ralph Macchio needed fill-ins on Thor (which he also edited) after Walt Simonson left. So he asked us to do a Thor fill-in. Then he asked us to do another one.
We did 3 fill-in stories, all this time pitching for Daredevil. In the end, Ralph decided to put Anne Nocenti and John Romita, Jr. on Daredevil and asked us to take over Thor. We weren’t sure we could do cosmic, but Ron said we’ve got to give it a try. If we couldn’t make it work, we’d go right away and do something. As much as I loved Walt’s stuff, it was so uniquely Walt, that there was no chance to even copy it, so there was no seamless transition between Walt’s run and ours.
Q: You also followed Walter Simonson on Fantastic Four, taking over the writing with Paul Ryan on the art?
TD: Yes, I did. The reason why I had taken over the FF was because it didn’t sell well on newsstands. Under Walt, it sold very well in the direct market. I didn’t want to be editor-in-chief of the company and have the FF taken off the newsstand. We had to make it a must-read. Paul and I did it with the idea pull out every trick we could to make it the wildest roller coaster ride in creation. By the time we were done, the top-selling Marvel comics on the newsstand were Thor, Captain American , and the Fantastic Four. Thor by me and Ron Frenz, believe it or not, was Marvel’s bestselling book on the newsstand.
Q: You and Paul Ryan had a controversial run on the Fantastic Four: You ended the Human Torch’s marriage by saying Alicia Masters was really a Skrull named Lyja; you “killed” Mr. Fantastic and Dr. Doom; Ant-Man joined the team; and you made the Invisible Woman more aggressive. Comment?
TD: People hated our FF, but with every issue sales would go up. I said to Paul, “I guess we better hope they keep hating us.”
Q: How did you wind up creating Spider-Girl?
TD: At a certain point after being taken off Amazing Spider-Man (in the late 1990s) before the relaunch, I was contractually obligated for another title. Marvel gave me What If. Ron and I came up with “What if Spider-Man had a Spider-Girl?” (in What If? Vol. 2 #105).
We hashed out the story and had to essentially create another world. Ron designed different Avengers and remade the Fantastic Four into the Fantastic Five. They were only supposed to appear in one panel and we’d never see them again. We’d never have to explain why Herbie the Robot is part of the F5 because this was gonna be a one-shot issue. That’s all it was gonna be. One story.
But the What If sold very well. Marvel was thinking about doing some kids comics, where there’d be three in a bag and we’d sell them at Wal-Mart… but the deal with Wal-Mart never materialized.
Q: Eventually, these titles in what was called the MC2 line were cancelled except for Spider-Girl, which has been cancelled a few times but fan outcry has saved it.
TD: This book has lasted so much longer than I thought it would have; I have no complaints. The secret is that Spider-Girl is a comic that can be read by anyone. Anyone can pick up any issue and get into it. The characters are likable characters. People who gave it a chance found out that they like it… It’s an Archie comic masquerading as a super-hero comic.
Q: In prior interviews, you stated that if editorial called and told you to stop work on Spider-Girl, you'd say, "Thanks, guys; you did right by me." Did you do that when you learned Amazing Spider-Girl would be cancelled at #30?
TD: I believe I've said words to that effect every time I've been interviewed and I've repeatedly told my editor the same thing.
Q: Why was the book canceled?
TD: The book has a small, but loyal audience. Unfortunately, retailers are cutting back on most titles these days for all the obvious reasons.
Q: Yet Spider-Girl still lives on in Amazing Spider-Man Family. Comment?
TD: It's really hard to think of the series as canceled when I still have to produce a new story every month.
Q: Can you comment on the outpouring of fan support that saved the title from cancellation several times?
TD: The fans are the only reason the series is still being published.
Q: Current EIC Joe Quesada likes Spider-Girl?
TD: Yes. The book would not have lasted for as long as it did without Joe’s support.
Q: Would you be surprised if Spider-Girl got her monthly series back?
TD: Not really because this is the little character that could and anything is possible!
Q: Can you comment on writing Marvel's longest series featuring a solo female character as the lead?
TD: I believe that honor belongs to Millie the Model or Patsy Walker. Spider-Girl is only Marvel's longest running super-hero title with a solo female lead and I think that's pretty cool in itself.
Q: What gives Spider-Girl her staying power?
TD: I think she's a fun character that's told in the classic Marvel style of action and angst – the kind of series that got most of us into comics in the first place!
Q: Loaded question: Did you have a favorite title or favorite character?
TD: That’s always a loaded one. In order to make a character work, you have to deeply love the character you’re working on. I loved spending time with Peter Parker, Eric Masterson, Thor, Mayday Parker, Ben Grimm, Johnny Storm… I loved them all and hated the horrible things I’d have to do to them because otherwise readers would have no reason to pick up the book.
Q: How long have you worked with artist Ron Frenz, your frequent collaborator, with whom you worked on Amazing Spider-Man, Thor, Thunderstrike, What If?, Spider-Girl, Amazing Spider-Girl, Avengers Next, and several other titles.
TD: Ron and I have worked together for going on 25 years. I’ve worked with Pat Oliffe, Ron Lim, Herb Trimpe, Paul Ryan, Todd Nauck, and all the guys over the years. Ron (Frenz) and I approach comics kind of the same way. We always have gone out of our way to work together. We’re like the last team in comics. We’ve got to wait until we have big fight and break up like all other teams did. The thing is none of us has energy to do that. We get along very well.
Q: You worked with Todd Nauck on the American Dream mini-series, yes?
TD: The weirdest thing is this is the first time the two of us have worked together. I feel like we’ve been doing this for 10 years… I’m happy that the people at the Motor City Comicon invited me and I look forward to attending this convention. I do intend to spend a lot of time with both of them (Frenz and Nauck).
If you're in the Detroit area next week, be sure to find Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz at Motor City Comic Con, May 15-17th.