May 17, 2018

A Conversation with Peter B Gillis

In childhood, the name Peter B Gillis was a mark of sure quality, every time. I loved this guy. The characters seemed alive. Everyone always had their own motives, their own blinders and complications. The stories moved with lyricism and point. Over the years, I have reread those comics, and read other things by him, and it’s never aged badly.

Who can you say that about? Right?

A Conversation With Peter B Gillis
Pop Medicine
Travis Hedge Coke

His work has aged, not just well, but in many ways, for the better. From The New Defenders and What If…? to Tail Gunner Jo and Shatter (the first all-digital commercial comic), many of his comics read like they could have been crafted specifically for today’s market and sometimes, still, at the forefront of that market’s reach.

A pleasure to talk with, and a writer whom I am still learning from.

Hedge Coke: What can we look forward to, from Peter B Gillis in the near future?

Gillis: A bunch of stuff — including things that are in negotiation right now. Not as much comics as I’d like, but there are 5 books I have contracts on: A science fiction novel, a fantasy novel, a short-story collection, The collected Romance of the Rose, a thing tentatively titled “Welcome to the Gillisverse,” featuring stories from the worlds I’ve created (including the unpublished ones) and a truly dangerous book called The Book of Heresies. All of these are inn varying stages of completion.

There’s a comics series of a property of mine that’s definitely happening but I can’t talk about yet and the development of a video game.

On the other hand, working at the majors seems to be a lost cause. I’m busy enough, though.

Hedge Coke: How likely is getting Tail Gunner Jo back in print? Can fans help?

Gillis: No real idea. We’ve had nibbles from game developers, and Dover Press wanted to reprint it, but DC has seemingly decided neither to reprint it nor to let it go.

I’d actually like to just finish the story: there were 6 more issues planned and plotted. (If you thought the ending of the series was weird, that’s because it was — but we were only halfway through the whole story.

Hedge Coke: Whose comics did/do you read?

Gillis: I was a Marvel zombie as a kid, reading some DC, and tried to broaden my reading habits as much as I could later — and when I broke in to the business, I got horribly spoiled by getting the Marvel and DC packets (and First, of course). When I left the business, I was pretty much “wait — you mean I have to PAY for them now?” During my exile, I read Sandman and the Alan Moore books and that was about it. These days, I have the same problem as many people: the cost of plunging back in.

With my nearest comic book store about 50 miles away, I’ve been using our public library (I’m on the board of trustees of it). It only does TPB’s, so I’m not current — and my exposure is spotty. Sadly, I can’t say as I’ve found anything that makes me excited, so it’s best I remain quiet.

Hedge Coke: What got you into comics?

Gillis: I was reading comics literally as far back as I can remember — and there was always enough amazing stuff that I never gave it up.

And I’m old enough to have grown up in the era of awful horrible science Fiction and fantasy movies — so SF read like A.E. van Vogt and Cordwainer Smith to me and looked like Jack Kirby and Wally Wood. I don’t think I ever had any doubt that I would give it at least a shot to do them myself.

Hedge Coke: Do you feel sentimental about company characters, after you’re done writing them?

Gillis: Kind of--but that’s been put to the test since I left the business. I always loved Dr. Strange, for example--the one character I absolutely wanted to write--and would still love to do him again--but it’s more like getting very fussy about him now. And cranky. It gets harder for someone to do a Strange story that would please me. And it’s hard to find a character that hasn’t been disassembled, smashed and reassembled more than once making nostalgia that much harder.

Hedge Coke: I first read your New Defenders run, when I was a kid, and undergoing surgeries that made me aware of what intersex meant. Cloud, and kind of a Valkyrie vs Iceman dialectic, helped me sort myself better, probably, than doctors and family, probably because they had to look kid-me in the eye. When you were writing these superhero comics, did you expect them to be influential in those ways?

Gillis: I did have to fight hard to do the Cloud storyline — to explain that there was a good science-fictional reason for what was going on, so it was okay — but it came out of my fascination over sexuality. I had a friend who transitioned from man to woman, but I didn’t pretend to be either oracular or championing about it - merely to speculate about identity. My intention — and I think it’s a pretty standard one for a writer — is to shake things up a bit. If I succeeded, I’m happy about it.

Hedge Coke: Your Dr Strange, particularly Strange Tales, tackled “good,” “necessary,” and terms that, in general, fantasy audiences just rolled with, like, “black magician.” Was that important to you, in the sense of being applicable to the real world, or just a good set of hooks to hang stories on?

Gillis: One of the biggest problem functionally with Dr. Strange ever since Steve Englehart made him Sorcerer Supreme, was how to keep him from being simply omnipotent. Everybody went through all sorts of acrobatics to that end, but it was still a problem. So I decided to emphasize an essential aspect of magic — white versus black, pure versus impure (which is not the same as good versus evil.) I mentioned Strange’s training as involving purification and asceticism over and above just reading thing out of books, which served a triple purpose: Strange couldn’t just blast away like his spells were guns — it contributed to his detachment personally — and it grounded the stories I was telling (which could get extremely outré) in real matters. Motives matter; ends don’t justify means; but sometimes one has to take the left-hand path. Bringing that in made the cosmic aspects of Doc’s stories less trivial.

Hedge Coke: What do you know now, that you wish you had known at the beginnings of your career?

Gillis: That comics will break your heart? Don McGregor told me that from the very beginning. It would have been easier to have really known that — but there was only one way to learn it.

Hedge Coke: What’s your favorite accomplishment in comics?

Gillis: Shatter may have put my name in the history books — and writing Dr. Strange was the fulfillment of a childhood dream — but my favorite? It was making George Clinton one of the creators of the Cosmic Cube. As a rabid P-Funker, it was a moment of glory beyond all others.

Hedge Coke: Has music influenced your writing more than to the extent of making reference to a musician or song?

Gillis: Since in my youth I actually wrote two musical comedies (the books were awful, but the music was decent), and playing keyboards myself, music’s been a strong part of my life, I have two responses:

In my Black Flame graphic novel I have one of the main characters be a musician of sorts—avant-garde, and more a sound designer than a tunesmith—and have him fooling around on a Reactable—an incredibly cool synthesizer used by Bjork, among others. Doing art about artists can be perilous, so I don’t delve into it that often, but here it worked. There are also two big music references cropped into the story, including the title.
The Eternals limited series had an Eternal musician and a Deviant visual artist—make and female—but I got fired off the book before I could do anything with them.

The other response: During the days when there was a monthly comics mini-con in downtown Chicago, I got to know Max Allan Collins really pretty well. He’s also a musician, and when we discussed writing comics full script versus Marvel-style, he said, ‘after all, a band has got to have a leader.’ That made me realized that, the best parts of comics tended to occur when rather than working off someone’s chart, that we just improvised off each other. And I always felt it important to have solo breaks as well as ensemble playing. (No bass solos, though.)

Hedge Coke: Anything, you wish you could go back and do differently?

Gillis: I do wonder what my life and comics career might have been like if I had accepted Jim Salicrup’s offer to become his assistant editor. I’m not sure things would have been better, but it’s a really interesting alternate Marvel-Earth. Most of the bad stuff had good opportunities — my disastrous attempts to start a comics company gave me a chance to meet and interact with a whole range of comics people I might not have ever gotten to know.

Just one thing: I should have fought harder and made more of a stink to help Tom Artis. I did what I thought I could at the time, but if I had been more vocal and more assertive, his end might have been less tragic and cosmically unfair.

Hedge Coke: You and Artis were so great together; what did he bring to those comics that you appreciated most?

Gillis: And as for Artis: he was not only enormously intelligent and restless but we tended to think in the same channels. And there was nothing I couldn’t throw at him that he wouldn’t get, nail, and improve. I just couldn’t get wild enough for him.

And getting to work at the same time with two artists (Brent Anderson and Tom) at the same time who could do subtleties of facial expression to perfection probably spoiled me forever in writing comics.

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