It feels as though there’s been a shift in how new talents come to public attention in comics. For a long time creators would break their teeth on some brilliant indie series or put in their time at DC or Marvel before they hit that first story they were born to tell, sometimes both. But in recent days, a sea of new writers have made strong and seemingly immediate impressions on the comics landscape.
Tom King is one of these new voices. Though he’s actually written quite a few comics before and even published an acclaimed novel, King was not necessarily a familiar name when he was announced as the co-writer of DC’s Grayson. Just a little more than a year later, Grayson has become a hit, King’s unique reinvention of the Omega Men has proven popular enough to flat-out reverse a cancelation, and he’s got upcoming series from Marvel and Vertigo.
As if proving yourself beloved, literary, and properly appreciative of Dick Grayson’s butt wasn’t enough, I had the good fortune to meet King at New York Comic Con where I discovered that he’s also not only a huge nerd but an incredibly kind and thoughtful creator.
Voice strained from four days of non-stop comic madness, King still took the time to give us a fantastic interview, covering topics as wide as religion, personal evolution, diversity, and comics history.
WCBR: Okay, so, just to make sure that I am correct, you are Tom King and you are the writer of Grayson, The Omega Men, the upcoming Vision, and Sheriff of Babylon.
Tom King: That is me. I will identify myself.
Can I start off by saying thank you for interviewing me?
I’m shaking- I know it’s audio, but I’m shaking his hand now.
No, thank you for talking to us.
…And by telling you how much I appreciate you helping me out.
It means a lot to me.
Well, since you kind of came to attention co-writing Grayson, I thought I’d start with a little bit about that. Now that you’re doing Omega Men, what is it like writing alone and what is it like writing with Tim? Like, how does it differ?
Um, well Tim and I are fairly independent. We plot together and then we write issues separately. So script by script it’s not that different. But the big difference is Tim Seeley’s, um, having him to rely on in Grayson– having him helping out is an incredible asset to me. And I do miss that on Omega Men. Working alone is fun, but it’s kind of like working without a net a little bit. It’s a little scarier.
So religion obviously plays a huge part in Omega Men. I’ve personally appreciated the sheer range of obscure religious titles that I have learned from that book.
All of the Omega Men- Omega Men define themselves by their relationship with Omega, by their relationship with the religion of the Vega System. Do you think that all of them are true believers? Or do some of them have a less literal relationship with their faith?
I think each of them has a unique relationship with their faith. And, uh, it’s a very specific one and it’s part of their character. I think as each of us has a different relationship with their faith. As alien and crazy as they are, they’re very much based on reality, based on people I’ve known, and based on my own sort of feelings. And I’ve never known two people to have the exact same thoughts on religion or the exact same God. I mean, your faith is the most personal thing to you and it says a lot about your personality and who you are and, as different as you are from somebody else, your faith is as different as them. I think Omega Men are the same way.
You’ll forgive me, I can’t like not like gush a little bit. I was so happy when I picked up Issue #3 because you-
That’s my favorite issue of the run. I love that issue.
Firstly, it’s just a great issue, but, secondly, you reestablished that Kyle Rayner came from a Catholic Latino cultural background and- It’s very funny, every time there’s a conversation about diversity I’m like, “Kyle Rayner!” and they’re like, “Oh! Yeah, I guess…” So, it was just kind of cool to have him back.
I feel like I don’t deserve any credit for that at all. I think that’s just who he is and so I wrote Kyle Rayner and they gave him to me. Um, it seems silly to take credit for a character- and, I think, part of that when people say congratulations is there’s this sort of assumption that white, Protestant males are neutral and if you’re Catholic or Latino you’re somehow different or off the norm. That’s fucking crazy. There’s no spectrum like that, there is no average, there is no norm. Kyle Rayner’s hispanic, but he’s still a superhero just like fucking- Sorry, I swear a lot.
It’s okay. My readers can handle it.
Yeah. I don’t know. But that’s what I’m saying is- it’s nothing to compliment me on. I’m just writing the character and that’s a part of him and he’s the hero of the book and he happens to be hispanic and that’s not really- to me, it’s interesting in that it affects his character, but it’s not that interesting as something I did, y’know? Does that make sense?
I’m sorry, I’m not trying to be-
No, I get it. But just thank you for recognizing that that’s a part of him when so many people forget it or- or choose not to do anything with it.
Given that you’ve had- you obviously were considering all of that, purely for your take on the character, who do you think Kyle Rayner is? Because we don’t see him a lot before he had the ring and now he doesn’t have it. What do you think is the core of Kyle. What centers you when you were writing him?
Well, I put this in #4- not as subtly as a probably should have, but I think what makes Kyle unique and what makes him unique as a character is that he’s a very normal guy. He’s very every day, he’s very Peter Parker. He’s you and me. And, unlike every other Lantern, when Hal got the ring or John got the ring, they were chosen. They had something special about them, something amazing, something inherent. Maybe it was in their genes or maybe it was in the way they were raised or something. Kyle, he didn’t get the ring that way. He’s you or I if we got the ring. If they had to pick the best person on the planet to be the next Green Lantern, I don’t think they’d pick me. They might pick you. I haven’t- I don’t know you that well. It’s possible.
WCBR: Last Kyle Rayner writer showing up creepily…
Tom King: Yeah, creepily, while I’m talking about it.
Justin Jordan: Hey, it’s the guy who fucked up my Kyle Rayner!
Tom King: It’s the guy whose Kyle Rayner I have to live up to, god damn asshole.
Justin Jordan: Kyle and Carol forever! Good seeing you, man.
WCBR: So, one thing you were talking about the other day is that we’re actually kind of still meeting the Omega Men in a sense. Who should we be watching? Who’s the one who’s going to take us by surprise, you think?
Tom King: Um, I think you should be watching Scraps. I love writing her and I have big plans for her. I think that’s, yeah, that’s the one to watch. I think Kalista might be my most fun to write, but Scraps is sort of based on my daughter a little bit, so I want to push her to the front. Just, ‘cause anything I can do to make my daughter smile makes me happy.
Alright, so kind of a mixed Grayson, Batman, Robin Eternal question. You were talking yesterday about Dick and Nightwing. You mentioned that you added the- you suggested the line to Tim in the annual about that. What do you think Robin means to Dick, what do you think Nightwing means to Dick and what do you think being out on his own means to Dick? Like, what do those different roles mean to him as separate from the others?
I don’t- That’s a good question. When someone says “That’s a good question” it means they don’t have a good answer. I see it not as like separate zones but as a continu- as a continuum. I always see Dick changing as a metaphor for us all. ‘Cause I don’t feel like I’m the same person I was five years ago and I don’t think I’m the same person I was ten years ago. And I feel like Dick’s evolution from Robin to Nightwing to Grayson is sort of the same thing that you and I have to go through. But even though we go through these transitions in our lives, we’re still the same people in the core. We sort of have this sense, y’know, that we get from our parents and we get from our experiences, of who we are as sort of a human being. And so I know that’s a weird way of saying it, but looking back on your life means it’s like saying, “What do you think of your high school self? What do you think of your college self?” Y’know? I feel like when Dick looks back he looks back just as we do and he says, “That person was necessary to make me the man I am today and that person was necessary to make me the man I am today.” And I think he would never say this ever ‘cause he’s a humble dude, but I think he’s kind of proud of what he’s done and I think he’s proud of where he’s been. But I think that- again, I don’t think that thought would occur to him, but I think deep down that’s what he would say.
Yeah, you don’t have a good answer… Tom King, person who writes words.
Well. Yeah, I don’t know-
No! That was awesome!
That was alright? Okay, good.
No, it was excellent. That was literary shit, man.
Aw, yeah. That’s what I do. Literary shit. Thank you.
So, Vision. Uh, you’ve talked about the Omega Men, you’ve said you’re not sure if they’re heroes or villains.
Vision very early on, first story about him, he chose he didn’t want to be a villain.
Yeah, he had like three pages of villainy.
Yeah. Big- big thing.
Y’know, I said this before, but I love- I love the famous line, “‘Oh, an unearthly vision,’ Wasp shouts at him and he takes that as his name.” What if she’d said something else, like, um, “an unearthly piece of crap!” and he’s called Piece of Crap the comic book or something. No, sorry, that’s a stupid joke I made yesterday and it still makes me laugh. So go ahead.
Well, I’m just curious. Uh, so he obviously doesn’t want to be a villain. Do you think he wants to be a hero? Does he want to be a person? What‘s his aspiration?
I think if Vision is left on his own, he’d want to be normal. He’d want to be a normal guy living a normal life. I think that the idea of humanity and normalcy appeals to him. I think he’d want a job. He’d want to, y’know, come home and raise a family and sort of do what the rest of us do. But I think he’s a man of responsibility and he realizes that he has to be a hero he has to deal with what he has. Um, but I do think that creates a conflict in him because he wants to be human and he realizes that when he’s a superhero he’s a little bit not human. Um, and that’s a natural sort of conflict of, like, I don’t know, what’s a proper metaphor? It’s like- I don’t know. Everything’s personal to me, y’know, I used to be in the CIA and I loved that job and I feel very guilty for leaving it, but I wanted to live this sort of normal life and I wanted to live with my kids and a wife and be able to pick them up from school and do all of that stuff. So, I feel like I put some of that in Vision maybe. I’m sorry, everything I write is a little bit from me.
Well, that’s my answer…
No, that’s great. And actually leads right into the next- this one thing I wanted to ask you about. Both of your series with DC are dealing very heavily with kind of the moral sacrifice that peace requires. The Vision is actually living in Washington DC and some people are worried that he could easily be a terror threat. Obviously, you’re drawing a lot from your time in counterterrorism with the CIA. How do you feel about being the guy with that experience- about being the CIA guy in comics?
I think the best comics all come from a personal place, it’s the old cliche, they sort of bleed into the page, y’know? It’s that the colors and the words are formed from who you are. If I had been a truck driver or if I had been a lawyer, which I had originally planned to be in my 20s, I would write about that experience and what I learned from that. I happen to have been in the CIA, so it’s part of me, so everything I write will come out of who I am. I mean, I could write about my current life of sitting behind a desk and writing all day, but it would be pretty boring. So, hopefully this is more interesting.
I mean, if you want someday I’ll write the epic adventures of Tom in front of the computer. And you’ll be like, “Oh, will Tom get up to have lunch at 12? No, he worked through it! He worked through it! Oh my goodness, he’s getting up at 12:15! 12:15, we have it! He’s up! He’s up! Uh oh, we need a cliff-hanger. We need a cliff-hanger. Is he gonna get Diet Coke or Diet Pepsi for lunch? Aw, we’ll find out next issue.”
Alright, and the last thing I wanna do is- seriously, this weekend I have learned so much about your comic nerdom and how deep it goes and I am impressed. Like, I did not realize how deep the Dick Grayson went, how deep all of these characters went. Obviously you have a lot of passion for this industry. What are the- what’s the passion project that’s left to you now. Like if you could talk to anyone and the editor’s like, “Who do you want?” What are the stories, what are the characters you wish you could work with?
Um, that’s a good question, so now I’m gonna give another bad answer. We get that question a lot and I don’t know what the- like I have simple pad answers like I love The Thing. I love that character at Marvel. I don’t know if I could tell a good story with him ‘cause I kind of worship him so much. And, uh, I mean, Dick Grayson is my favorite character and I get to write him already, so-
So you’re kind of already-
It’s hard to say. Um, in all honesty, I mean, the more honest answer I think would be I just wanna write comics and, to me, most characters in comics have something interesting about them, something cool, some sort of unique aspect of them. And as long as I can find that in them that’s what I want to do.
I don’t think there’s a character that- Tim Drake was really hard to write, but it’s not like I wouldn’t want to write a Tim Drake book because when you find something- Like, okay, you find Tim Drake is kind of- He’s so into technology. He’s a little anti-social, y’know? He doesn’t relate to people as well as Dick and Jason do. And you start thinking about that. Well, I grew up in comic books and I was sort of obsessed with them and I didn’t relate to people as well. And then I started thinking, “Oh, I would like to write a character like that.” A character who has to deal with sort of the social issues geeks and nerds have had to deal with our whole lives. So then I’m like, “Oh, crap, now I want to write a Tim Drake series.” And that same thing can be said for anybody you offer. Y’know?
Like who’s the most obscure, stupid character. I’m trying to think of like- someone’s like D-Man, you’re like, “Oh, right, D-Man!” and then you’re like, “Oh, well look what Warren Ellis did with D-Man.” And then you’re like, “Oh, but I could do that with-” Or I’m sure when someone went up to Alan Moore once and was like, “Okay, we’ve got these Charlton’s characters-”
“Have you always dreamed of writing Charlton characters?” He’s like “Yeah, that’s my- Aw, of course!” Or they gave him Miracle Man, the first Miracle Mans are so terrible. They’re these horrible rip-offs of the C.C. Beck stuff and he’s like, “No, I’m gonna find the core of his character and find something beautiful and interesting about it.” So, to me it’s not about the character, it’s about what you find in them. That’s a stupid answer to give.
No! You’re always like giving me these wonderful answers and you’re like, “Aw, that was stupid.”
So the answer’s The Thing.
One more question.
Do you have any other works coming out?
Do you have any other works coming out? Yeah, talk to me about Sheriff. I’ll be honest, I didn’t know enough about Sheriff. I took up so much of your time and I didn’t know if I could get a great question, but if you have a great answer, I will ask the question to get that answer.
I just want people to know about this book because it’s a Vertigo book and I think- I came back to comics for Vertigo and they sort of set the standard of comics for a long time. And then everyone started copying them, so they got lost a little bit in the mix and people forgot that they were the first ones out there and that the great creators did their great work in Vertigo: Y: The Last Man, Scalped, Preacher, Sandman, Swamp Thing.
So now I have my own Vertigo title. It comes out in December. It’s called Sheriff of Babylon. And it’s the best thing I’ve ever written. And if you’ve read my stuff and you like it, go to your comic book store and pre-order the first issue. It’s the first time I’ve written about my experience in the wars that I went through in my 20s directly. I’m getting it cleared by the agency so I can talk a little bit closer about things. And it’s a crime series set in Iraq a year after the invasion and it sort of tells the story of how we went from winning a war and being happy and declaring it to realizing that we were in a much longer war, a war that sort of still haunts us today. And it tells that through- through blood and sweat and dirt and sand and I love it. So please give it a chance and I thank you if you do.
Yeah, I mean- It was really interesting when that guy came up. There was a Kurdish guy who came to the table- Y’know, obviously it’s a personal book to you, how do you, uh, balance the kind of like- I’m sorry, I’m not being as eloquent as I ought to be.
But, y’know, war is- War is a terrible thing to have from just one perspective. It’s too big for that. And, when you’re writing a story, you’re creating an entire world. How do you balance keeping it personal, keeping it from your one perspective, and then also doing some justice to the complexity and the- the hugeness of that situation? Like that was a huge, changing moment for an entire country.
I don’t worry about any of that crap you just said. That’s the answer. I’m sorry. It was a very complicated war and very complicated politics so what I do is I throw out all the politics. I don’t want to talk about that. I feel like smarter, very intelligent people can talk about that. I just want to talk about sort of the time I was there. I wasn’t there for very long. I was only there for four and a half months. Um, many people served much longer in much more dangerous positions and deserve all the praise for that. But I want to talk about what I saw and what I saw was complicated and the situation was not easily explainable. And when you encounter a situation that’s complicated and not explainable, sometimes fiction’s the best way to get at it. Fiction speaks. Fiction gets behind words, right? Like if I was just writing something to give you a message or say like, “This is what the war is and this wasn’t what the war is,” I might as well just fucking write it. Y’know, I can write non-fiction. I can put words in order and periods and commas and the whole thing. But if you do fiction you can get at truths that you can’t get at in words. There’s stuff beyond these letters and commas and so I’m trying to get at that. I’m trying to get at that stuff I saw that was so great by using these tools that they’ve given me at Vertigo and DC.