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Jeff Mariotte: Explaining Presidential Material

A comics interview article by: Tim Lasiuta
Comic books aren’t just for kids anymore. Now, they’re for voters too!

IDW Publishing has unleashed Jeff Mariotte, Andy Helfer, and Tom Morgan loose on the leading presidential candidates, Barack Obama and John McCain. Each have their own Presidential Material issues out on stands currently with Mariotte heading up the Obama project. Jeff, with his already hectic writing and publicity tour schedule, managed to slow down long enough to answer my questions.

Tim Lasiuta: Jeff, You have just come off a whirlwind tour celebrating your work on Presidential Material? I thought that writers were supposed to be hidden in the background, not prime time guests. What are your impressions of a week of 'fame'?

Jeff Mariotte: My "fame" has been kind of spread out this summer. After the Presidential Material books were announced at Comic-Con in July, I appeared on CNN and Fox News Channel, and was interviewed by major newspapers and the Associated Press, so the stories went all around the world. Then things settled down again until the release of the comics in October, which happened to coincide with the release of my novel River Runs Red. I had already planned a small tour for River Runs Red, and then the Presidential tour got booked right in the middle of it. So I really was doing a kind of whirlwind, coast-to-coast blitz for a week or so. It has slacked off again now, but I still have a couple of events before I'm all done.

I'm not recognized on the streets or anything, although by this point I think the Obama cover art might be if it could grow legs and walk around. The attention has mostly been on the book, which is only fitting and appropriate. Really, the thing I learned from all the attention is how strong and fit Senators Obama and McCain must be, to do this same sort of thing non-stop for almost two years. I couldn't survive it, yet they seem to be doing fine.

TL: Having read the biography (to this point), of Barack Obama, firstly, how did you approach such a time and fact sensitive assignment?

JM: Obviously we had a fairly short deadline, since IDW wanted the books out as much before the election as possible, but we wanted to make sure they could include as much of the primaries as possible (and in the case of my book, Hillary Clinton was still in the race when I started it, so we had to wait long enough to be sure Obama would win the nomination). I had been following the primaries pretty closely anyway, but had to dig much deeper to do the book. I read Obama's own books, and many, many newspaper and magazine articles. Every fact that appears in the biography was double or triple-sourced by me, and then again so my editor can assure readers assured that the book is accurate. Andy Helfer went through a similar process for the McCain book, which is equally factual.

TL: Other than printed and video matter, did you have contact with Mr. Obama? What is your impression of him as a potential leader?

JM: I didn't have any contact with Senator Obama or the campaign. That was intentional; I didn't want the perception to exist that the book was in any way vetted, approved, or influenced by the campaign. I wanted to present the man's life story as it happened, warts and all, and in the heat of a presidential campaign there might have been pushback against the idea of including Obama's early drug use, his relationships with Jeremiah Wright, Tony Rezko, and William Ayers, and other controversial episodes from his life.

My impression of him as a potential leader grew immensely when I read his books, particularly The Audacity of Hope, which is issues-oriented and which explains the process by which he arrives at his views on various issues. He really is a man who thinks things through, who solicits advice from a wide range of people with differing viewpoints, who examines the facts before making up his mind. I think he has sound judgment and the ability to work with people from every different background and holding every possible point of view.

TL: The books weren't announced that long ago, when did this project begin and how did you get the assignment? Tom Morgan did a marvelous job on the art.

JM: I got the assignment in late April, I think, or early May. They were announced at Comic-Con at the end of July, and I was already long finished by that point. I had about six weeks to do all the research and the script, and Tom, of course, had a little longer to do the art. You're right he was terrific.

TL: This is not your most recent published work, your CSI: Miami novel hit stands in September, Tales of Zorro in August, River Runs Red, and Spider Man: Requiem in October, and only part of an impressive decade plus long career. You have written westerns, suspense, short stories, and now political commentary. How did your career begin? Who was influential in your life that inspired you?

JM: My first published short story came out in a science fiction anthology in 1988, but from then until the early 90s my only published writing was a little bit of journalism. My big break came when Jim Lee hired me to write some trading cards for him, in the early days of Image Comics and his Image studio, WildStorm Productions. After that I became a staffer for the company, but was also allowed to write comics, more and more as time went on. My first novel was a tie-in based on the WildStorm superhero team Gen13--it was collaboration with Christopher Golden, and we had both written Gen13 comics prior to that. Chris also introduced me to his Buffy novel editor, who invited me to do some work in that line and the Angel novel line, and that's what really launched my prose career. That same editor bought my first original novels, the teen horror quartet Witch Season.

So obviously those people were very important to my career. In terms of literary inspirations, I'd have to include people like Roy Rogers (not a literary figure, but the first comics I remember reading were Roy Rogers comics, and I never got over my love of Western comics after that), Wallace Stegner, William Goldman, Denny O'Neil, Stephen King, Ross Macdonald... it's a pretty long list.

TL: Which format appeals to you more as a writer/creator?

JM: I love writing novels and comics, for very different reasons. Comics are a collaborative medium, and it's always thrilling to see a good artist bring your ideas to life in a way you couldn't have quite imagined. But they're also necessarily short and largely external--it's hard to get deeply into the heads of your characters. Novels allow for a broader canvas with deeper dimensions.

TL: Much of your creative output has been using licensed or others' characters. CSI, Angel, Conan, and your Tales of Zorro compilation story for Moonstone. Is your creative approach different when you are dealing with someone else's “child'?

JM: Not terribly. Whether I'm writing about my characters or someone else's, the important thing is to be consistent about the characters as they're established. If I wrote a novel in which a dedicated peacenik suddenly turns into an Ultimate Fighter at a crucial moment, nobody would believe it. By the same token, I wouldn't write a Zorro story in which Zorro becomes a serial killer. Obviously in the case of licensed fiction, I don't get to invent the main characters or the world they inhabit, and that's different, but the requirements of storytelling are the same, the respect for the characters is the same, and the attention to style, plot, pace, etc. doesn't change.

TL: With Zorro, the honor of being in the same book as folks like Guy Williams Jr, Isabel Allendes, and some accomplished novelists is quite an achievement. The Lone Ranger, Green Hornet, Spiderman (new storyline), and even the Phantom have been re-imagined or in the process thereof. What are your thoughts on “updated” classic characters? Are there lines we should not cross?

JM: My answer to this is pretty much the same as the last answer. As long as those characters, all of which are beloved by millions of fans, are handled with the respect they deserve, then there's nothing wrong with telling new stories about them. I think that helps keep them alive for new generations of fans.

Having the lead story in a Zorro anthology was a great honor, and almost as big a thrill as getting to hold one of the swords Guy Williams (the "real" screen Zorro, as far as I'm concerned) used on his TV show, at Comic-Con 2007.

TL: As a western fan, your Desperadoes projects have always appealed to me. What led to your development of the series? It seems that the franchise, after three episodes, still has mileage left in it. Is there still a western or two left in you? What else is percolating in your computer?

JM: There have actually been five Desperadoes projects--four miniseries (with artists John Cassaday, John Severin, Jeremy Haun and Alberto Dose) and a one-shot with John Lucas. In 2009, we'll see an Omnibus edition collecting all of those in one book, and a miniseries that crosses over the Desperadoes gang with Frank Timmons, the hero of the Graveslinger horror/Western miniseries I wrote with Shannon Eric Denton last year. I also have a new series coming from WildStorm that I'm not supposed to talk about yet, I'm writing the comic book adaptation of the next Terminator movie, Terminator: Salvation, and I have an original graphic novel called Zombie Cop coming from Image Comics/Shadowline in January, as well as some other projects still looking for homes. In prose, Cold Black Hearts, the third novel in my loose supernatural thriller border trilogy (after Missing White Girl and River Runs Red) comes out in May 2009, and I'm working on some other novel projects for various publishers. There's also a new prose novella in the Zombie Cop book, set in the same horrific zombie-infested world, a Western short story on the way, another short story for Moonstone, and another horror short story about which I'm also very excited, but which I'm also supposed to keep quiet about. So I have plenty of stuff on the way, and plenty to keep me busy.

TL: With the success of Presidential Material, how do you see this in raising your profile and drawing attention to the fact that comic book writers can be so tuned into what is happening today, that comics become relevant to readers everywhere?

JM: I don't know how much it has done for my personal profile--as I said above, most of the attention has been on the book, which is as it should be. Barack Obama is the star of that story, not me. But the success of both the Obama and McCain books will, I hope, persuade people that comics are not just an entertainment medium but a tool for teaching and a way to address serious subjects.

TL: Obama or McCain?

JM: Well, as I write this, most of the voters haven't weighed in yet. I support Obama, and I'm pretty confident that he's going to win. But it ain't over till it's over, so we'll just have to see how my predictive abilities are.

Editor’s Note: No matter who you support, please go out and do your civic duty and vote. People in other countries would kill to be able to vote, so don’t waste it. Comics Bulletin does not endorse either candidate, the editor still isn’t 100% sure who he is voting for.

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