Savage Enterprises Publishing
Mike Aragona - Freelance Writer / Editor

In Conversation


Len Strazewski — (June 1998) Len Strazewski, the at-one-time self-named Batman of Comics Writers (he was writing for business journals during the day and comic books at night) was one of the Founding Fathers of Malibu's Ultraverse line (Prime, Elven, Prototype). He also struck a chord with many fans when he brought us The Justice Society of America in 1991 with the help of Mike Parobeck's ground-breaking art style. Len's hand also played in the universe of the Archie Superheroes when DC published those characters under their !mpact line. I was first introduced to Len's work in DC's Starman (Will Payton) followed by the JSA, The Fly, and many more. I spoke with him on CompuServe and later finally met him in Montreal for the first 3-day comic convention we ever had that I could remember (back 5 years ago? yow!). He signed a great ad/poster of the JSA for me (To Mike, My Montreal Pal!) Which I quickly laminated and to this day still hangs on the wall above my computer. I feel its a shame that his name no longer graces any of the comic books I buy, especially with all he's been involved with. So, because of that, (and cause I genuinely wanted to know what he was up to these days), I've taken the liberty of bribing him into an In Conversation interview :)


Mike Aragona:

Len, I'd like to focus on some key areas if I may: your beginnings, the JSA/ !mpact/ Ultraverse years, your present, and your future. So, to get us started, can you recount, for those who don't know, how you got "drafted" into the comics industry?

Len Strazewski:

You Canadians just don't understand the U.S. military draft. Every able-bodied male is subject to being drafted into the comics industry. As you can tell from the amount of untrained, inexperienced people working in comics today, the "draft" is very active.

Okay, okay, I'm only kidding. Actually, I've been a comics reader since I was four years old and for a large portion of years between four years old and 43 years old, I've been friends with Brian Augustyn, formerly a DC Comics editor and now a comics free-lancer. When we were 10 or 11, Brian would force me to write stories for him to draw. Many years later, after college for me and art school for him, he forced me to kibitz on comics again. He was helping a couple of kids developing a comic book called TROLLORDS (Scott Beaderstadt and Paul Frice) and asked me to offer comments. It was a rare chance to use my M.A. in Creative Writing, so what the heck!

A little later on, Brian pitched the idea of a charity comic book for the Literacy Volunteers of Chicago and asked me to script a story for the book, to be drawn by another kid he and Willie Schubert discovered--a tall, skinny, red-haired fellow named Mike Parobeck. That got me started and then Brian became an editor at NOW Comics and eventually at DC.

MA:

Besides DC and Malibu, have you done a lot of work for any other publisher?

LS:

What's a lot? I did a bunch of stuff for NOW Comics (SPEED RACER and DAI KAMIKAZE), TRU Studios (TROLLORDS), First Comics (MUNDEN'S BAR), Archie (SUPER-TEENS), Caliber (TERROR TOTS and NEGATIVE BURN) and Dark Horse (an unpublished Harlan Ellison adaptation). A few independent things also, just for fun. Coming out this summer is a story I wrote gratis for TOTALLY HORSES, an unusual comic book for girls about horseback riding. The story features a U.S. Equestrian Team Competition

MA:

How did the JSA series come about? Were fans hungering for their return?

LS:

Actually the first attempt at a JSA series was a mini-series set in the 1950s, drawn by various artists, including Parobeck. This series was actually designed to provide !mpact artists a project until !impact could get off the ground. I wound up catching the JSA bug. As far as I know, fans always wanted a JSA series, but DC wouldn't pay attention to their requests.

MA:

What is your take on the quick cancellation of this surprise hit series?

LS:

It was a capricious decision made personally by Mike Carlin because he didn't like Mike's artwork or my writing and believed that senior citizen super-heroes was not what DC should be publishing. He made his opinion clear to me several times after the cancellation. As a result, I think it would be nigh onto impossible that I will work at DC again.

MA:

What was it like working with Mike Parobek? Did you ask for him when The Fly came your way?

LS:

Brian Augustyn had been looking to get Mike involved in DC projects since the beginning and Brian knew that I would be happy to work with Mike anytime, anyplace. Mike was a genius at interpreting script and story with a tremendous ability to impart personality to every character. His pencils were not only dynamic in the super-hero way, but evocative. He never showed the usual gritted-teeth characterization, His characters, smiled, frowned, laughed, cried, the way people do. When he showed me pencils from a script I had written, I would ask him things like, "hey, where did you get the idea for that?" He'd point to a line of script that he had read and interpreted in some brilliant way.

MA:

Speaking of !mpact, how did you get involved with that "Universe"?

LS:

Drafted by Brian and Mike Gold.

MA:

Considering these heroes were, in some cases, radically different from their Archie days, were there still a lot of constraints to the kinds of tales you could tell?

LS:

No, none at all. Mike was editor in chief of the line and would just remind us that we had intended the series for new comics readers and that it was going to carry the Comics Code.

MA:

Was there a lot of collaboration or brain-share with the other creators in this Universe?

LS:

Absolutely. The writers re-created the characters at a couple of editorial retreats and stayed in close touch via telephone.

MA:

Did the demise of the line come from low sales or the fact that Archie wanted to take them back and publish the characters themselves?

LS:

Never in the time I was involved with the Universe did Archie have anything to do with what we created except in the most remote approvals. DC had a license and DC killed the work. It eventually reverted back to Archie which still doesn't want to publish the characters.

Low sales came only after DC had withdrawn support for the books by the way. The company never provided distribution that would put the books in the hands of the target market, i.e. young readers who had never read comics. Instead, DC just slopped the books into the direct market, adding to a growing glut. It was reported to me that when a retailer asked a DC direct market rep if he should order a lot of !mpact books, the retailer was told not to order high, but to buy more Superman instead.

MA:

That's so... sad. *sigh* Ok, let's move ahead to Malibu. I've heard you tell the story of the Ultraverse's origins numerous times but, sadly, never thought to record it. How about a recap? How were the Founding Fathers chosen (or how did they come together?)

LS:

The Founders were gathered by Malibu, led by David Olbrich, Chris Ulm and Tom Mason, and put together as a team in a series of brainstorming retreats. In many ways, I was the rookie of the bunch which included Mike Barr, Steve Englehart, Steve Gerber and Gerard Jones. Later James Robinson was added. Sci-fi writer Larry Niven was present for the first retreat and added a bunch of ideas too.

MA:

How did the Ultraverse concept get hammered out? Which characters came first, what held this world together?

LS:

A bunch of writers hung out for several days and brainstormed from 8:00 am until 2:00 am every day until we had a zillion characters and a new conceptual universe. Many characters happened at the same time, but I recall Englehart's STRANGERS and what became NIGHTMAN as being among the first, followed by Barr's MANTRA. PRIME, by me and Jones, came later when we were focusing on a lead hero character.

The world was held together by the imagination of this team, which is why it bit the dust when the Founders were driven out of the project by Marvel editorial leadership and young Malibu editors who were desperate to keep their jobs. They lost their jobs anyway.

MA:

You seem to have an affinity with the "Child-Hero" concept (as seen with The Fly and Prime). Was this an area you simply enjoyed exploring or was there a conscious rationale with trying to create a book geared to a very specific age group?

LS:

I just like writing about the way young people decide how they are to be when they grow up. I also like writing about life infused with the power of imagination. There, those are my two literary themes.

MA:

Did Marvel's buy-out of Malibu come as a surprise? Was the line really suffering?

LS:

Not a surprise at all. Malibu needed to be bailed out after spending a lot of money on marketing and promotion. The line was beginning to suffer, as were all super-hero comics, as a result of the market glut.

MA:

The fans knew this would be the kiss of death for the heroes they had grown to love. Did the Founding Fathers have hopes or did they also expect Marvel to cancel the entire line?

LS:

I don't think that anyone among the Founders expected Marvel or the remaining Malibu editors to screw up as badly as they did.

MA:

Have litigations been settled yet or are the character rights still being fought?

LS:

At this stage, there's very little to fight about. The Ultraverse Founders are non-secured creditors in the Marvel bankruptcy court action and have little expectation of getting any money or their characters. All litigation is irrelevant. At this stage, Marvel can't even find the original Ultraverse contracts, or so their accounting execs say.

MA:

Looking back on it now, why do you think the line failed?

LS:

Two factors, I think. First the market fell apart just when the titles should have been developing an audience. Second, young, inexperienced editors in the second year or so of the project, were unable to manage the line. Like many editors today, they believed that they could direct the creativity of those with more training and experience, when what they should have been doing was managing production.

MA:

Whatever happened to your "fun" project with Paul Fricke (Troll Lords?).

LS:

That was TERROR TOTS, which was eventualy published by Caliber. We may do more someday if there is ever a comics market again. The concept is bouncing around Hollywood animation producers.

MA:

Sorry, my bad. All this is from memory so you have to cut me some slack . At one time, you hoped the CD Rom market would offer a new opportunity for you. Would you care to comment on that?

LS:

There's no opportunity for me in comcis today and even less in CD-ROM. CD-ROM is still a very small market.

MA:

After the Ultraverse fiasco, you decided to leave comics and teach Business Journalism at a Chicago college and concentrate on the computer and business magazines you were freelancing with. How is that going? Was teaching what you expected it to be?

LS:

I'm up to my eyeballs in journalism assignments all the time, though they pay less than comics writing. Some stories are boring, some are exciting, The boring stories pay better. I probably took about a 20 percent pay cut in switching excluseively to journalism. I only teach part-time, in the graduate journalism program at Columbia College. However, the school has asked me to think about a full-time tenure-track position and I am thinking about it. I'll think more when they come up with funding and make a salary offer. In the meantime, I am scheduled to teach "Information Search Strategies," an advanced reporting class for journalism M.A. candidates this fall.

MA:

You mentioned a few years ago that you would like to find the "fun" in working in the comics field again and have done a few small-press projects. With the current shift in comics (at least on Marvel's part) of hiring talented writers (realizing that nice art should still tell a solid story), have you thought about "jumping back in" to paraphrase an old Ultraverse ad?

LS:

I loved writing comics and would be happy to write them again, but i think there is very little likihood of that. Though Marvel has hired back some real talent (Busiek, Waid, Claremont), comics has become more than ever, a closed club. Anybody can and does write comics, but only if they are: a former assistant editor at Marvel or DC, friends of an editor, an artist who can bully his or her way into a writing gig, or British.

I shouldn't complain because I got my first assignments by being friends with an editor. But as you can see, I no longer fit into any of the above categories.

MA:

I don't know how closely you've been following the industry lately, but do you have any comments on what happened with Jim Valentino's Non-Line, Acclaim, and Awesome? Does it look like there's no way a young company can compete in any way, shape, or form with the "Big Guns"? What's the best they can hope for?

LS:

There is smiply no mass market left for comics. Very few people want to read or buy comics featuring new characters. Comics as a medium has become a lot like poetry. There is a small but loyal number of people who read and buy contemporary poetry; however there are millions of people who write bad poetry and want to publish it. EVERYBODY thinks they can write and draw comics and want to publish these comics; about 150,000 people TOPS in the U.S. and Canada, want to buy and read comics. And they are most interested in established familiar characters.

MA:

With 1998 well under way, do you have any goals/ plans for the rest of the year? Any novels planned for 99?

LS:

Right now, I am looking for a publisher for a non-fiction book on the financial collapse of Marvel Entertainment, Inc. If I take the professorship in the fall, I expect to be writing that book and starting on an urban fanatasy novel.

MA:

As always, it's a pleasure chatting with you, Len. I look forward to seeing you again both in print and in person! Thanks for your time!

LS:

Anytime! I look forward to a return trip to Montreal. make me a reservation at Les Halles on Crescent and tell the chef to whip up the soupiere with the lobster, truffles, sea bass and the pastry shell.

MA:

Let me know when you're next in town and I'll do my damndest to join you! :)


(In Conversation (c) Mike Aragona. All rights reserved. No reproduction or retransmission of this article is granted without written permission of Mike Aragona)

—} [Fast Fiction]

—} [The Last Word Editorial Articles]

—} [In Conversation With...]

—} [Book Reviews]

—} [Movie Reviews]

—} [Convention Reviews/ Journals]


—} Comicopia

—} SavageLand

—} Comic Views

—} Feedback

[   Home  |   Blog  |   Conventions  ]
Copyright Savage Enterprises. All rights reserved. Contact: Mike Aragona    Powered by Free Site Templates