Talking to Paul Tobin about ‘Models Inc.’ and Moving Forward
Reviving forgotten comic book characters is almost de rigueur for today's comics writers, so it was no surprise when Marvel Comics writer Paul Tobin reached into the back issue bin for characters to make cameos in his "Marvel Adventures" titles. What was a little more remarkable were the characters he chose to revive: fashion models.
His interest in model comics, which have been largely defunct since the 70s, lead to a scripting role for the new Marvel comics miniseries "Models Inc.," a murder mystery featuring many of the Marvel model characters and an appearance from real-life fashion icon Tim Gunn. ComicsAlliance talked with Tobin about the right way to script women, the rise of character-oriented storytelling, and why the most important rule in making comics is moving forward.
ComicsAlliance: How did you first get interested in model comics?
Paul Tobin: I actually grew up reading a lot of the model comics because I was one of those omnivore comics readers, My grocery story that I went to sold three-packs of comics, and a lot of the time there'd be a superhero comic on the top of the pack where you could see the cover, and you'd like, "Oh, Spider-Man! This is going to be great!" And then you'd open up it up and there'd be an issue of Chili and Millie. But I grew up loving every single comic, so in my reading experience, the model comics had equal value with the superhero comics. Then I started writing for Marvel, and there were all these superheroes but no models comics whatsoever. CA: Did you do a lot of research into the world of fashion when you were writing "Models Inc"?
PT: I did spend a few days looking through fashion sites and basically figuring out what fashions I like. With all of the fashions that are in the book, I specifically said I want them in this dress, or a dress of this type. I wanted them to have a very modern look, but in an Audrey Hepburn way, not a Britney Spears way. If you look at the fashion world, half the stuff that's on a catwalk is completely unwearable, and I wanted to avoid any costumes like that. I wanted outfits that accentuated the women, not outfits that said, "look how crazy I am!"
CA: At least insane, unwearable costumes are something that high fashion and superheroes have in common.
PT: Many of the artists that I work with have been told things like, this design for this particular woman looks good, but drop the six-inch heels. She's going to wear flats, because she's going to need to run across rooftops, and be at least slightly mobile, and I don't want the carjacking case or the kidnapping case to have to hinge upon whether the heel is going to hold out. That is never going to be a part of my writing – improper costuming just because it looks good in a splash page.
CA: That was one of the things I loved when Greg Rucka and J.H. Williams took over Batwoman in "Detective Comics." One of the first things I noticed was that they dropped the heels. Maybe that's a little thing--
PT: But it's not a little thing. When you look at a character, the second you start to say, "I don't want her in high heels," what you're really saying as a writer is she doesn't want to be in high heels. And once you start that process of understanding why she's doing things, you're delving into her personality. Whenever you design a costume, if you think about it in terms of why the character in that costume is thinking those thoughts, you're developing the character. These small things – should Bruce Wayne wear cufflinks? That's Bruce's decision, and it's very small, but it's that whole butterfly flapping its wings that causes the hurricane.
CA: Do you think most of the male Marvel readership will be as open-minded as you were about modeling comics?
PT: Am I necessarily thinking that all the people who read Greg [Pak] and Fred [Van Lente]'s "Hercules" are going to go, "Ooh, a modeling comic!" I mean, they might, but we don't just need to ask what percentage of Marvel readers are going to read this comic. We can say, what new readers would we like to bring in with comic books? In the long term, that's more valuable.
CA: Why do you think the modeling comics disappeared off the shelves in the first place?
PT: In the 70s, 80s, and the 90s as well, there wasn't as much female readership. In the 90s, female readership started to come back, but it wasn't Marvel and DC who did it. For me, it was the independent comics and manga starting to rise that did it. I'm looking at this from the perspective of having run a store during those times. When I first started, no women were coming into the store, and then manga started exploding in 1996, 1997, and that started bringing a lot of women in.
To me, that has done the superhero books a big favor. A lot of today's creators were looking at manga or the indies of the 90s, and now to me the superhero comics have a lot of manga sensibilities. When I say that a lot of people seem to think I mean the art, but what I mean is it's a little more into the characters, and a little less into who can punch who through a wall.
In the 90s, characterization of superheroes was very basic: which one's the drunk? Which one's the wifebeater? It was never, which one likes to go to this certain type of movie? Which one prefers Italian food over sushi? And that to me has always been what's more interesting in terms of character. If you don't understand all that a character is, you can't write them as a character; you can only write them as a fight scene.
When Spider-Man's fighting, I want to think about him more as a person who cares about humanity, or has to get back to that meeting, or has money troubles. That's more important to me than the rage he feels towards his enemy. If you don't have the characterization, there's no build up to fight scene, so all you have is this boring repetition of, "Look, he's punching him! And now he's punching him! And now he's punching back!"
CA: It reminds me, as an "X-Men" fan, about how my favorite issues growing up were the ones where they were just hanging out, like the issue where they all just played softball.
PT: I remember that softball issue, but I have no idea who they fought in that issue. Do you?
CA: ... No.
PT: No. [laughs]
CA: You mentioned how characterization has changed since the 1990s... Has this become mandatory in superhero comics now? Could you still get away without giving much thought to characterization?
PT: I certainly think you can avoid it, but I'm not sure you can avoid it long term. I think you can build a short term audience that way, but I don't think you can build a long term audience, and a long term audience is more important to me. I do thin
k there are age groups that will love the fight scene more than they love the characterization. When I was 12 years old it was very important to me than everyone understood that the Hulk could beat Thor, but that's not as important to me anymore. Now I'm more interested in what Hulk and Thor would do if they were hanging out – in the development of these characters.
Again, I want to care about these characters as they go to the fight because I'm old enough now – I completely understand that Marvel is never going to completely and utterly kill Spider-Man and close the book on the character. So when he's fighting Kraven or Venom, or any of those characters, I know he's going to win the fight. So I have to look at other reasons why I'm interested in the fight. What does this fight mean to Spider-Man? How does it affect him as a person?
My favorite writers [in comics] right now, I would consider characterization writers. [Brian] Bendis, Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction – they're brilliant. And Greg Rucka – any female character he writes, I believe him. And that's huge for me, because where a lot of writers fail and where Greg wins is that he writes women specifically as if they were women. It's problematic for me, because – you're a woman, but you're not sitting here in some special woman way, and you don't need to constantly state that you're a woman.
When poor writers approach women, they feel the need to constantly point what that they are women. We understand that they are women. You don't need to have them say, "we're going to go out shopping, and it's going to be for dresses!" Greg just lets the character be the character, and that is far more successful. I don't like the constant pointing out of attributes. To put it in superhero terms, whenever you mention the Hulk, you don't need to say, "the Hulk, who is big and green." Especially since we work in comics, which is a visual medium. If you see Black Cat walking across the floor in a drawing, you don't need to narrate that she walked across the floor in a womanly fashion. We got it.
CA: There's a part of me that reads that as – does the writer think his audience doesn't know what women are like? Does he think they haven't met one?
PT: We don't need to explain what a woman is. We don't need to write "woman" and then in parentheses "(not a man)." We're cool, we got it. And again, the manga influence for me was huge in that aspect. What I like about manga is that they don't restrict themselves in terms of stories. I'm sort of a guy's guy, despite the fact that I'm writing "Models Inc." I love a good Hulk versus Thor throwdown, and I love to do manly things, so it was very strange for me to realize one day that I was trembling with anticipation of the third volume of "Paradise Kiss," which is all about modeling and designing dresses. I'm like, how did this happen? What has changed me so that instead of going out and drinking beer and punching my friends, I want to sit around and read "Paradise Kiss"? And the answer is that I cared about the characters. They've built them up, but there's still a mystery around them. I hate the idea that you have to explain everything about every character. There are several characters in comics that have been completely ruined because they've been over-explained. It was better when we didn't know.
CA: The decades of continuity that surround a lot of superhero characters have gotten so dense at this point. It often feels more like dead weight to me than something that actually improves the books.
PT: Dan Slott, who is a writer I like a lot, recently asked in a tweet, when is it OK to ignore continuity? And I think the best answer he got was from [artist] Dennis Calero, another guy I like a lot. And he said, "If it's past seven years, forget about it." To me, seven years seems about right. There are certainly some iconic things I wouldn't touch, but seven years seems about right if it's something like two characters dating. Can we just forget about that now? Can we just move on?
My answer to Dan was "whatever makes the comic better," which is a little simplistic, but you only get 140 characters on Twitter. My point was, if you're running up against continuity, and it's a stumbling block to telling the story you want to tell, it's probably problematic to the readers as well. There are certainly a lot of readers who want canon established 100% of the time, but as a writer I can tell you that's just not possible. It's never ever possible to link all the stories together.
Marvel has a New York-centric superhero world, and I like the people of New York to be basically similar to the people of New York as they are. But in the continuity of Marvel Comics, there's been about 6 or 7 hundred outright alien takeovers of New York. If every citizen of New York knows that, you can't even have New York in a comic anymore; there's no reason to live in New York. So you have to be able to push things to the side.
When I first started reading the Japanese stuff, I was fascinated by "Tenchi Muyo," which almost on a season by season basis would shuffle the characters and say, these two used to be brother and sister but now they're boyfriend and girlfriend, and it's completely and utterly new continuity. And I wouldn't really want Marvel or DC to do that, but I do like seeing a different take on a character and building new worlds. And Marvel is so built at this point that it's hard to do anything other than build a small shack on the edge of a 12 billion room mansion. You can't really tell that story again and again and again. So you need to move on.
I also like seeing new relationships. This will probably make some people mad, but Steven Wacker's point about why Spider-Man's marriage to Mary Jane had to end – his points are valid. If you have a happy marriage, there are no stories to tell. If you have an unhappy marriage, you have your flagship character in an unhappy marriage – why do you want that? You have two bad choices, really, after a certain amount of time.
When I sit down to write a comic, I don't want to explore my favorite comics from when I was a kid. It becomes fanfic at that point. I want to move the stories forward. My editor Nate Cosby is always trying to impress upon me that there are people out there who are picking up a comic for the first time, and it's my comic. And that I'm establishing the type of stories that they will remember. I don't want to be the type of writer that this new reader looks back on 10 years from now, and says, "I fondly remember those stories from Paul Tobin, although now I realize that they were just pastiches of comics from ten years before him." I want my stories to be out there.
In this "Secret Wars" project that I'm working on now, we're throwing out a lot of the costumes and things like, and you had people saying, "That's not the costume the Wasp was wearing!" And it's like, that's true. Because the costume the Wasp was wearing was really hideous. There were a few people who noticed that the Storm we're using doesn't have the mohawk that she had, but we're not going to use that mohawk because that was an element of the time period when it came out, and we're not trying to recreate Secret Wars. We're trying to tell stories about those characters in those situations, which is entirely different than saying, "You're about to recapture the same experiences you had during the first Secret Wars." Or you can come with us and move into the future. I always want to be telling a new story, rather than hanging some skin on an old skeleton.