Tom DeFalco interview
Tom DeFalco, writer
"We just kept on throwing curveball after curveball and just having a grand old time for ourselves."
In December 2017 Tom DeFalco was kind enough to answer some questions about his time working on The Fantastic Four and comics in general.
Tom worked in the comics industry for over 40 years, and, with artist Paul Ryan, had one of the longest creative runs on The Fantastic Four, being behind 61 issues between 1991-1996.
Tom's association with The Fantastic Four also ran to a couple of annuals, two 80s issues, the creation of "The Fantastic Five", a movie adaptation, and more.
As thanks for his generosity in speaking to the site, I asked Tom if there was a charity he'd like a donation for. He selected The Hero Initiative, a site dedicated towards helping comic book creators who have fallen on hard times and need financial aid.
You can click the banner below to visit the Hero Initiative and learn more about the good work that they do. If you've enjoyed reading this interview - or, indeed, any of the interviews on this site - then please consider donating to this cause.
Hey Tom, how are you today?
So far so good… don’t ruin it. (laughs)
Hopefully I won’t (laughs). Okay, to go back to the start, the most confusing thing reading the Fantastic Four was that there was Walt Simonson doing it for a couple of years before you.
Yes… I forget how long Walt was on it… maybe two years, maybe one, you know something like that.
Normally, when there was a new creative team, they’d kind of introduce it in the magazine to make a big splash about it, say there’s a new writer and artist. But with you and Paul Ryan you just kind of turned up and so it's kind of confusing as a reader just to get a whole new team and just going cold to it.
I don't remember if we made a big deal about it or not. I don't know what to tell you. I spent all of my time trying to focus on the actual material. That a lot of the times I just was not paying any attention whatsoever to the, you know, the public relations aspect of it. Walt... had been doing the comic book… had been been doing… some really terrific, I thought, really terrific science fiction stories. At one point he had this thing where he had introduced a new Fantastic Four which was Wolverine and… Ghost Rider and… I don't remember who else.
I think it was the Hulk, wasn’t it, and, er… was it Spider-Man as well?*
Yeah… it could have been. You know, it's thirty years now so you're not gonna remember this stuff. But, you know, that sold terrific. But for reasons that befuddled the heck out of me, the sales on the newsstands were, you know, falling away. At certain point Walt decided that he needed a change, and that he didn’t want to do the FF any more, and I think he decided to, you know, leave Marvel for a while, go to DC or something like that. I'm sure I interviewed him for a book that I did about the Fantastic Four.
Oh, the Comic Creators?
I’ve got that book actually, but I’ve stuck it in my parents’ attic, so I couldn’t find it to dig it out before the interview.
Yeah, I feel like a jerk because I should have checked that myself. (laughs)
It’s a good book that is, I did enjoy that.
Yeah. So… he decided to leave. And I was talking to the editor, Ralph Macchio, and I said to him “you know, you're the editor. If you could choose any creative team in the world to put on this book, who would you like to put on the book?”
And I say this without ego, alright? Cos I’m sure that my ego is as big as anybody else's, but I’m not that crazy. He turned to me and he said “I want you and Ron Frenz to be on this book.” And I said “I'm very flattered”, but at the time Ron and I were working on Thor. And, you know, we were deeply involved with the Eric Masterson story. Earlier we’d been offered a chance to do Captain America which is a book both Ron and I both love, but we were so deeply involved in this Thor book that just couldn't we couldn't bear to leave Thor. And I think I remember saying to Ralph “let me talk to Ron.” And, you know, Ron and I had a really heartfelt discussion, he says “nah nah, I can’t leave Thor now.”
So I went to Ralph and I said “Yeah, I spoke to Ron and… yeah, it isn’t gonna happen.” And he said “Well…. would you do the book without Ron?”
And I thought. I said “Ralph, I’ve got so much other work to do, I just don't have time. Why don’t you check around?” And I suggested some… a number of writers that I felt could do a great job. I think Chris Claremont was one of the writers. Ralph spoke to a number of people. And you know nobody… had what he was looking for. So he kept coming back to me.
And I know this sounds weird, because I’m Editor-In-Chief, technically I’m his boss, but we had established our relationship, how we work together, years before I became Editor-In-Chief. And at one point you know somebody said to me there's no way you could do the Editor-In-Chief job and write two comic books a month. And I thought “you don't know how much work I’m… (laughs)… you have no idea how much other work I’m doin’!”
And I thought, you know what, I can I can cut back on something else. And I think I can do two comic books a month. There was a period of my where, you know, I was really uh…. you know… ha… I needed serious help because I was working, ten, twelve, fifteen hours a day, seven days a week.
That was actually going to be one of my other questions is how did you manage it, because I’ve got that you were doing at least three or four books and you were Editor-In-Chief as well. And this was all at the same time.
Yeah, and then I was doing a bunch of not-comicbook work too. Well, what can I tell you? When you’re a nutcase, you’re a nutcase. And I said to Ralph, “who do you think would be the artist?” The person he approached was Ron Lim. But Ron was doing Captain America. (Laughs) Ron didn’t want to give up Captain America. And then he says “You know who I think would do a great job? Paul Ryan.” And I knew Paul, Paul was a buddy, I’d hung out with him about ten years ago, and I said “I think Paul Ryan would be terrific.”
So he brought me and Paul together. The first question Paul said is “so what ideas do you have?” But I said “I really don't have… (laughs) I don’t have any right now, because I just decided to do the book with you. When you said ‘yes’, that’s when I decided I would do the book. So I have absolutely no ideas, I just know that I want this to be the most exciting roller coaster ride in comic books.” And he said “Okay! Sounds good to me!” And, you know, then we started throwing out ideas and uhhh… the roller coaster ride started. And pretty much never stopped.
Was it like the old Marvel Plot, with you each coming out with bits, and he was drawing it, and then you were doing the writing on top, or….?
Well… Paul and I… it's always been my history that when I deal with an artist that we spend a lot of time discussing the characters. Because I feel if you know the character intimately that whatever situation you throw, the story will write itself. And we spent a lot of time doing that and then… I started to throw in what I refer to as these ‘curveballs’. The first one was… I think the end of our first issue… that you find out that, uh, Alicia isn’t Alicia, it’s Lyja the Skrull.
I don't know if I told Paul that curveball was comin’. Um, that I just turned in the plot. Cos I think that once you got to the last page… Paul had a unique way of working, at least initially. He’d look, read three pages, and then draw the pages, and then read three pages, and then draw the next three pages. So he got to the end and he was surprised by that curveball. Then we just kept, you know, curveball after curveball and just having a grand old time for ourselves.
I was having a rush read through the run before we did the interview, and I was amazed just how many curveballs there are, actually, it seems in each one there is a big cliffhanger there. You said about Alicia and the Lyja thing… how pre-planned was that? I’ve read somewhere that you had it planned back in the eighties**, further than that, but was that just something you said?
No, no, that was not something that I planned. A couple of years before, I don't remember when… I was at Ralph Macchio’s house and Mark Gruenwald was there. And the two of them were discussing the Fantastic Four, about the fact that Johnny Storm would marry Alicia… and they were discussing it and, you know, neither one of them liked the idea. And… I thought that it was kind of a goofy idea too. That Johnny would marry his best friend's girlfriend. And they were discussing it, this and that, and the other thing, and trying to work it out. And they said “Well, the only the only possible explanation is Alicia’s a Skrull.”
And I remember turning to them and saying “Alicia’s a Skrull, are you guys out of your minds?” And they said “Well we’re trying to come up with explanations, what's your explanation?”
I said “I don't have any, but I'm not writing the book and probably never will, so I don't have to think of one.”
When I ended up writing the book I thought “Hey, you know what? Maybe I’m gonna steal Ralph’s idea!” I don't know if it was Ralph's idea or Mark Gruenwald’s idea. But I went to Ralph and I said “remember that old idea you came up with?” and he said “no, I don’t remember that.” I said “Yeah I got it from you guys, trust me” and then when that issue came out, Grueny said “Wow, I love this idea!” and I said to him “you came up with it.” And he said “… I don’t remember it.” And I described the situation, but neither Ralph nor Mark remember coming up with that idea, but it was too good an idea… I know I didn’t come up with it, it was them. (laughs) Unless you didn’t like it, if you didn’t like it then it was my idea. (laughs)
(laughs) It's definitely different… it was definitely unexpected as well. I suppose one of the other ones is that you killed off Reed for over two years.
Yeah. Yeah. The plan that we had when we killed off Reed, was that no one is going to believe that he’s dead. So we’re going to have Sue throughout the whole thing never believing he's dead. Until some point she’ll finally accept that he’s dead. And when she finally accepts it, then we’ll bring him back. I had originally… I forget the numbers. Here’s a secret behind comics… at one point… I told you that the newsstand sales on FF weren't so good… that they kept rising steadily. When Paul and I got on, every issue that came out sold better than the issue before it. So we were on just a steady climb. You know the Heroes Reborn thing…?
Oh, yes… that was the Image thing, wasn’t it?
Yeah, that thing. The first two issues outsold us and then they never got close.
They don’t tend to build, do they? They normally tend to tail off after an initial surge… there are some of the sales figures printed in some of the issues you've done, where they print that distribution for the previous twelve months. I saw it was actually quite high, it was something like 200,000 copies an issue.
Yeah, we were doing pretty good.
But I noticed that there was a dip, maybe say a 40,000 dip after Reed was killed***.
No, actually, that sparked other sales. Like I said, every issue the sales went up. After Reed got killed, I think everybody was startled, and had to read the next issue, and then they kept reading it because they thought that we’d bring him back after four or five issues. And then as we’re getting towards issue 400, the sales on that book were so good, that I thought now that the sales are good I can leave the title. So my original plan was to leave the title, leave it around 398, 399, and let a new creative team take over with 400.
And I was going to talk to the new creative team and say “listen, do you want me to bring Reed back, or do you want to bring Reed back?” My plan was let them bring Reed back because then it looks like ‘ahhh, now that DeFalco’s finally gone we can bring back Reed!’ (laughs) That sort of stuff, you know, so this way it seems like they were answering the fans' calls.
Was there anyone specific you had in mind to take over or was that just an idea in the back of your head?
That was an idea in the back of my head, and I had spoken to Ralph and said “stop looking for whoever you think you want.” My plan was I was going to give up Fantastic Four and take over a book called New Warriors. Which had been a terrific-selling book for a while, but had fallen on hard times, the numbers were getting very low on that, so I was going to move towards New Warriors.
You kind of saw it as a sort of responsibility, with you still Editor-In-Chief at this time?
Yeah, I thought, you know, it's my job to take over low-selling books and make them high-selling books. What happened was around that time I got fired as Editor-In-Chief. And the company offered me a really nice contract to continue to write, and one of the conditions in the contract is I couldn't quit a title. The company had control of which titles I would write. And what I suggested, why don’t you take me off Fantastic Four and put me on New Warriors, and they said no. So that was the end of that discussion. Well, we had many discussions, but ultimately they were in charge and I had to do what they… you know… go where they told me to go.
Towards the end, around ‘96, they cancelled the title and gave it to Image. Did you have any say in that at all, or was that something that was pulled out from you?
No… when they gave the titles to Image…. That was all decided by a board of directors… the suits upstairs. Bob Harris was Editor-In-Chief at the time that they came down and they basically told him “this is what's going to happen.”
So it was kind of a fait accompli really, there was no discussion involved really from the creative side of it?
Yeah. Basically it was a trick on the parts of the suits to help the stock price.
Oh, this was a time when Marvel was going through the bankruptcy issues, wasn’t it?
Yeah, so they wanted to help the stock price… and… um… every analyst that was writing about Marvel would say ‘the problem with Marvel is it has poor management… it has… you know, two or three other things, a lot of dead - … and lot of blah blah blah, blah blah blah, and it lost all its artists to Image.’
And the management? What were they going to do, fire themselves? No. And all the other things they couldn’t fix, but they said ‘oh, we can get the Image artists back.’
But this is something that most people don't realise, or refuse to admit. When the Image guys left… because they left with so much publicity… all the titles they left the sales went up on. So when they left, we actually got a boost in terms of all of our overall sales. And it was because there was so much publicity surrounding these things. And Marvel sales were really good up until the suits made a decision… at a certain point the suits decided to buy their own distributor. And that's what almost killed the entire industry… destroyed Marvel sales… sales on everything fell like sixty percent. You know like Marvel, and across the board, a ton of comicbook stores went out of business, a bunch of distributors went out of business… it was just a stupid, terrible fiasco. But of course these days everybody blames those sales on the Clone Saga. (laughs)
(laughs) Oh, the Clone Saga. Can I ask you some specifics about the plots – like you say, it’s thirty years ago…
If I remember, I’ll tell you what I remember.
Well one that always worried me was that the Thing has been… kind of… almost been emasculated over the years. And there’s one where he gets his face slashed open, and then he buys Wolverine a beer for it afterwards.
I mean, it wasn't just your plot, it was kinda symptomatic since the 70s and carries on today, where he's being bashed around. It was an interesting plot, but I felt a bit sorry for the guy in that he's got his face slashed open.
Yeah, well.. we slashed his face… just to… we had felt that people were thinking Ben Grimm is much too cuddly. So we slashed his face to kind of ‘ugly him up’ again. And to remind the readers that he was a monster, and he didn’t want to look the way he did, he’s not as cuddly as everybody thought he was. You know, I think he was furious at Wolverine for the longest time, but then at a certain point… kind of accepted what had happened. Again, I'm sorry that I don't remember the details or how that plot went.
I’m very conscious as I now have friends with young kids, who obviously used to be the market of these books, and… modern comics today don’t seem to be things that children can read anymore. There seems to be a lot of violence in them… too much violence and too much adult material.
Yeah, I think you’re right. I think these days nobody’s thinking about kids. In those days we used to think that our readers were 16-year-olds of all ages. Those who were under 16 dreamed of the magical day that they would be 16. And those who were over 16 remembered their 16-year-old selves with fondness.
I understand you’re currently working with Archie, is that right?
I've done some work for Archie. Right now I’m not really doing any comic books. That there's a good chance I’m done with comic books.
Do you still have the urge to do comic books?
I… I'm not sure. I think that if the right project came by… and I got a chance to work with, you know, one of my old buddies or something like that… you know, I'm sure I'd be interested but… I hate to sound corny, but I think my creative muse has gone in other directions over the years.
I’ll always love the medium. And love the teamwork aspect of doing comics. Um… but… some of the things I’m doing these days I think it’s a little too… ummm… I want to say ‘adult and mature’ but I don’t want to give you the impression I’m doing porno stuff or anything like that. (laughs) I’m doing murder mysteries, that sort of stuff… it’s where my inclination is these days. And comic… I… I don't think I would fit into comics today, because I… I believe that with a story, any story, whether it's a five hundred page fantasy novel or a four hundred page murder mystery, whatever it is, it’s got to grab you by the throat in the first page and keep on yankin’ you through the pages. And comics today… move at a glacial pace as far as I'm concerned.
Yeah, there’s a term for that, isn’t there? Some kind of plot where they expand it out… there’s a very modern term for it…
Ummmm…. decompressed storytelling.
That’s it, decompressed storytelling. It’s very different to what I was used to growing up, very different.
Yeah. And, you know….. I don't want to sound like an old fart, but I am an old fart, so… (laughs) You know, the decompressed storytelling doesn’t work for me, I get bored. And I think that… I worry about the writers doing that, because I think, look at any other medium. You know, when you’re in a movie. You have 15-20 seconds to grab the viewer. Within a minute there’s been a big explosion on the screen. In television you may have that full minute (laughs), but something’s gotta happen within that full minute or your story editor’s gonna fire your ass. When you’re writing novels and that sort of stuff, if that first sentence doesn’t grab ‘em by the throat, you’re gone!
I think in terms of value for money as well, because they’re quite expensive nowadays comics, you pick one up and you can read it in five minutes flat. There’s nice pictures but there's no real content there at all.
Yeah. And I feel that you gotta be worth the money and the time for your readers. Especially when you’re charging three or four dollars a pop, or for five dollars a pop. I recently showed up at a comicbook store, and they gave me a comic book for free, mainly because I guess they couldn’t sell it. And it was seven dollars and I read it, and it was a bunch of vignettes… was supposed to explain a brand new change in direction for the company, and it’s a bunch of vignettes… and for seven dollars there wasn’t a complete story there.
And you know back in the day, my Fantastic Four, the Fantastic Fours that Paul Ryan and I did, if you look carefully, you’ll see that we had a twenty page story with a beginning, middle and end, and then we had a two-page introduction to the next story. That always ended up with a cliffhanger, so a lot of times people would said it was a never-ending story, so I’d think “go back and reread those things!” (laughs)
Modern art… I’ve noticed that modern comics tend to be photo-realistic almost, so on a technical level they’re very impressive, but I don't know if it has the dynamism that it used to have when it was, say, Kirby...
I’m not seeing it. I think there's some beautiful artwork. But there isn’t the panel to panel continuity that people like us grew up with. And the comic books are very static. To be honest, I think a lot of ‘em read more like radio scripts than comic book scripts. Where it’s all based on the dialogue. It’s basically heads talking. I like radio dramas, but I think you do radio dramas for radio and comic books… y’know? Comic books are closer to opera than they are to radio or movies anything like that. Big gestures. Big scenes.
I suppose it comes back to what we were saying earlier about it not being appropriate for kids as you’ve got the blood and guts, and teeth being knocked out, and all this kind of thing going on now… I wouldn’t really be comfortable giving that to a friend’s child anymore.
Yeah. There are so many problems right now with the industry. A lot of it comes down to distribution. I think that… besides some comicbook stores, it’s hard to find comics. I think there's also a problem with the editorial, that, a lot of people grow up with chips on their shoulder. “Hey, I'm reading comic books, but comic books aren’t just for kids!”
But now, it’s not that they’re not just for kids, they’re not for kids at all. And I think that that was a mistake, because, you know, when you're nine, ten, eleven years old you have an unlimited source of income. It's called your parents. Once you discover either sex or cars, money becomes very finite. And then once you’re appealing to the adult market… you know, every time an adult buys anything, they’re questioning whether or not they can afford it. Because now we gotta pay rent and everything else like that, we don't have that unlimited source of income anymore.
It’s definitely a good point. I mean, it’s amazing that they’ve got these movies out right now, which was obviously unthinkable in the 90s, these movies are generating billions of dollars but it's not really feeding back into the comics at all.
No. It’s not at all, because I’d say the movies are doing, I’d say, 1980s hoo-haa action. it's just the kind of kind of comic that guys like me and Ron Frenz loved to do. But the comics today are doing this decompressed… philosophical… you know… slow-moving… boring… kind of thing. Boy, does that sound condescending.
It is a very different market place to what it was when you were working on it in the 90s, isn’t it? Very, very different.
I suppose one of the strangest things is that we’re discussing this now, it's 2017, and there hasn’t been a Fantastic Four comic for a couple of years now.
Yeah, I… I think, you know, part of that is because nobody knows how to do the Fantastic Four. Everybody comes up with these big science fiction ideas, but that’s not The Fantastic Four. The Fantastic Four, it’s a soap opera, it's a family drama. It’s Dallas, but instead of oil wells in the back yard you’ve got spaceships. But nobody knows how to do that that sort of… crazy soap opera. It’s complicated, requires a lot of plotting and a lot of work...
I take it you’d read it before you worked on it, you’d grown up with Stan Lee and so on…
Oh, yeah, yeah, I love the Fantastic Four. That was my first Marvel comic and it drew me in.
Do you think it can still work in the modern age?
The Fantastic Four?
Absolutely! You just need a writer who will write about those four characters, and who will really do real characterisation and build a universe, a soap opera, around those four characters. I’d hope that they could do it with some real talent, some continuity, some real action, I think the decompressed storytelling doesn't work for the Fantastic Four. But if you could…. you know, maybe it’s time for me and Ron Frenz to get on that book! (laughs)
It would be nice to see you back on it just to shake it up a little bit…
Yeah. Well… on the one hand, it's nice to think about it in a phone conversation, on the other hand… yeah, I don’t know. (laughs) I can't look at it… every once in a while I’m looking for something, thinking I’d like to get back in it to do that then, you know, ten minutes later I’ll think “what are you, crazy?” (laughs)
I just remember some of your titles, like your Spider-Man… they were good titles. They kind of stick with you, I think.
Yeah, I think because, back in those days, we were doing stories about the actual characters. And probably a lot of what you remember, what sticks with you, were the personal things that happen to the characters. And some of those scenes they really stick with you. I’m sure you can’t remember which villain Ben punched in what issue, but I’m sure you can remember a moment when Ben said something or did something that broke your heart. And those were the kind of comics that clowns like me were taught to write.
I think one of the most famous ones you did wasn’t actually the Fantastic Four, it was a Marvel Two-In-One with Ben in a boxing match, and he keeps getting battered, but he keeps getting back up…
(laughs) Yeah, the Champion story. Ron Wilson and I… there was a time when boxing was very big, certainly in America, I don’t know how it was in England, and everyone wanted to be an amateur boxer. And I remember talking to Ron Wilson, saying “none of these guys know how sports really works. (laughs) They think all there is, you get into a ring and that’s it. But they don’t understand, you know, they don't understand what it is to really be a jock. Ben’s the only superhero who does." So I said we’re going to do a story where we show ‘em what it really means… that was our goal there. And I guess it worked, because it really… that’s a story that everybody brings up to me, years later. That one, and the one where he and the Sandman go for a beer.
They’ve undone that one recently I’ve heard. I’ve not read the full story, but they said he was lying or something like that? They’ve kind of retconned it, to try and undo it.
Yeah, you know… guys… you either chart the directions, or you repeat the old ones. (laughs) And… I always thought it was my job to try and move directions.
It did seem a shame to have something original like that undone.
Well, it’s their playground now… when I was there I’m sure the guys before me were saying “What the heck is DeFalco doing, he’s messing up all the things that we did!” You know? So now it’s their time to mess up all the things that I did. (laughs)
I did actually see... I don’t know whether I should bring it up, but John Byrne… he’s got a website where he does talk about the Alicia/Skrull bit and how he’s sort of… not too happy about it…
I'm sure he wasn’t. But, you know, that’s the biz.
Tom, thank you for talking to the site. We talked about the Hero Initiative where I’ll make a donation to thank you for your time. What amazed me is how many big names are on there and that they needed that help.
Yeah… it’s amazing to me, what has happened to guys.
I actually saw Gene Colan on there. You think of Gene Colan, and you think he’s one of the greats, you don't really expect to see that. It’s kind of heart-breaking.
Yeah…. yeah. It’s sad. A lot of the greats. I… errrr… I wish I could do more.
Hopefully people, if they read the interview, they’ll contribute and add a little more to it.
Before you go, is there anything you’re working on that you’d like readers to know?
Well, I found out Marvel are going to start reprinting Spider-Girl, the complete collection of Spider-Girl, or at least volume one. That was a fun comic book, that I think a lot of hard core readers never gave a chance to. Here’s your chance to get it out of the ground floor, to try again.
Would you ever return to that if you had the chance?
Sorry, I’m trying to haggle you to get back into comics, I think, I want to see some new stories from you, I think that’s what it is.
(laughs) Well, thank you very much. I think that… listen, if Marvel ever wanted another Spider-Girl story from me, I think I would have to say yes. There are certain things that I’d have to say yes, and… I shouldn’t say this in an interview… ummm… but… any time Ron Frenz is involved (laughs)… you know, if you can convince Ron to jump on a project, I’m always there.
He’s got a very good style, hasn’t he? I recognise Ron’s style whenever I see him.
Yeah, Ron is terrific.
Thank you so much for answering some questions and talking about your time on the book, it’s been real fun.
It was fun for me too. Thank you.
Huge thanks to Tom DeFalco for giving up his time to speak to the site.
Tom's collected works, including his run on The Fantastic Four, can be ordered online via Amazon.
* I knew perfectly well that the "new FF" was made up of Ghost Rider, Wolverine, the Hulk and Spider-Man, but I instinctively pretended I wasn't sure so as not to appear like the huge nerd I really am.
** The promotional material in the letters page of Issue #363 alleges that Tom first had the Alicia/Lyja switch planned during the Secret Wars era of 1984-1985.
*** Although the distribution figures are printed in the letters pages throughout Tom's run, it's difficult to pinpoint which issues they exactly correlate to, or what the reason behind it is, be it a plot point or the bureaucratic changes Tom spoke about. In Issue #398 (cover-dated March 1995) the distribution for the previous twelve months was cited as an average of 151,400 sold, down from 217,750 copies in the previous annual report. However, this was total distribution, not just newstand stores, and it's safe to say that the whole thing is very complicated...