To all true comic fans Tom's name ought to be familiar. If not, perhaps this interview will go some way to remind a new generation of fans just how significant Tom DeFalco was during a certain era of the comic industry and highlight his plans for the future.
Tom: My relationship with comics began with newspaper strips. I loved Pogo, the Phantom, Mandrake and On Stage--although I read every strip in every newspaper that my dad brought home. My first comic book was something that starred Batman which was given to me by an older cousin. Batman scared the heck out of me, but I was intrigued with the idea of a comic book and soon found out they were for sale at my local candy store.
Paul: What was your very first published work and how did it happen?
Tom: A friend of my started to work for a weekly newspaper and suggested I do some articles for them. I wrote a few small pieces and even did a review column about comic books. I believe I started writing for them in the spring of 1969. They didn't pay much, but I was thrilled to be published.
Paul: Who was you first Editor for example? Am I incorrect in thinking it may have been at Marvel?
Tom: You are incorrect. After I graduated college in 1972--where I wrote for the local newspapers, I did PR releases for the college PR office, I sold a few short stories and did a weekly comic strip for my college newspaper--I sent resumes to various publishers, looking for a job. Archie Comics granted me an interview and a job in their editorial/production department. I soon started submitting one-page gags and eventually started to sell them. Those gags were my first published comic book work.
Paul: I confess I had a feeling I may have been wrong. I apologise. In that case it neatly leads me to ask, how did you get your first foot in the door at Marvel comics?Tom: FYI My first comic book editor was Richard Goldwater. When I began at Archie, I worked for the legendary Victor Gorelick who ran the editorial/production department. As time went on at Archie, I started coming into the office only two or three days a week and spent the other days writing. I wrote for Archie and then added Charlton and then started selling to DC. I was invited to a weekly poker game with a bunch of other comic book people where I met Jim Shooter. Jim saw and liked some of the work I did at DC and invited me to do a 6-page tryout story that starred the Vision. I did the story. Jim liked it and gave me more assignments.
Paul: Can we jump ahead a little and just dive into your time on Spiderman. It is an era that is VERY fondly remembered to this day. Some of your storylines have had an impact for a significantly long time. It must be satisfying to know all those issues were such a success?
Tom: It is nice to be remembered fondly. While we were on the book, Ron Frenz and I enjoyed working together, but we kept struggling to make the book and our work better. A struggle that continues to this day. Also, the readers kept telling us that they preferred Stern and John Romina Jr. to us. They also complained because we were creating new villains instead of recycling the old ones. A criticism we usually get.
Paul: But boy oh boy.... Your partnership With Ron Frenz is certainly something that has stood the test of time! Has the collaborative process the two of you share evolved much over time or did it all fall into place quite quickly?
Tom: It fell into place slowly but surely. It started with conversations about the character of Peter Parker and we got into the miniature of his life--including the type of pizza he'd order. The more we talked, the more Ron suggested bits and story ideas and dialogue. We've gotten to the point that I no longer know where his contributions end and mine begin. I loved Roger Stern's run. I just wanted to be true to the character of Peter Parker and write the best stories I could.
Paul: Spiderman's black costume was famously a product of the first Secret Wars mini series, and featured on a cover of Spiderman. Can I ask who precisely came up with Spiderman's black costume? I would love to hear your feedback about the origins of Spiderman's black costume please.
Tom: The black costume began when a gentleman by the name of Randy Schueller submitted a plot in which Reed Richards designs a stealth version of Spidey's costume. Randy's original plot and description of the costume was at the time recently printed in a one-shot called SPIDER-MAN SELF-IMPROVEMENT. Sometime later we licensed our characters to Mattel for the Secret Wars toy line. Shooter decided to give Spidey a new costume. He reread Randy's plot, liked the idea, but not the design. So he hired a few artists to design a stealh costume. Mike Zack came up with the winning design. However, Rick Leonardi added to the final design. Thus the design for the black costume can be attributed to Randy, Jim, Mike and Rick.
Paul: Before continuing to discuss your writing career we have to acknowledge your tenure as one of only a handful of people to be Editor In Chief for Marvel. To start with, was it a job you actively sought out or was it something that was less planned out than that?
Tom: It wasn't a job I sought or wanted.
Paul: With that in mind your time as Editor in Chief is considered a successful period in the role. Did you approach the job with any particular “mission statement” or specific goals?
Tom: I had three goals when I took over as EIC. Life had gotten rather chaotic at Marvel and I wanted to restore a sense of stability and professionalism to the editorial department. I also wanted Marvel to think like a real publisher. Mark Gruenwald and I put together a three-year publishing plan--the first in the company's history which outlines how we were going to expand the number of trade paperbacks, comic book titles and eventually do hardcover books. MY most important goal was to get creative people paid for foreign reprints and I FAILED to achieve that goal.
Paul: To your mind what would you say you absolutely DID accomplish? Something you are especially proud of? Star Comics spring to mind.
Tom: I was very proud of Star Comics and also the Marvel Masterworks.
Paul: Was it unusual at the time for an Editor in Chief to continue to write titles like Thor?
Tom: Not really. Every previous EIC--with the possible exception of Archie Goodwin--continued to write. I was also assigned to Thor a few months before I became EIC.
Paul: So, back to Thor. Did you ask Mr Ron Frenz to alter his art style at all to be a little bit retro? To recognise older comics? Kirby perhaps?
Tom: No. Ron and I discussed what we liked about Thor and our favourite runs. We decided to bring Thor back to his Marvel roots--focusing on soap opera and super-heroics. Ron picked the art style he thought would work best.
Paul: It worked for me. There was a storyline where Ron Frenz truly "knocked it out of the park" artistically. The issues with the Celestials versus Thor. Would you agree artistically it was one of many high points in that run?
Tom: I think Ron did a GREAT job on the Celestial story, but I also think he kept improving, making each new issue better than the previous one.
Paul: You created Thunderstrike I believe. To this day how do you feel about the character?
Tom: I thought he was a good twist on an old concept. I was happy that we got to finish his story the way we planned...although we also had a sequel in our back pocket.
Paul: Was your "back up sequel in your back pock pocket” ever published”?
Tom: Nope and we never pitched it.
Paul: You created some great characters in your Thor run. It was such fun. Who was your favourite to write? Eric? There is a part of fandom that adores Thunderstrike sir? He is missed.
Tom: In many ways, Eric embodied the best of Ron and me. But his story is over and that's the biz.
Paul: I personally think that is a little bit of shame. Many comic fans rather liked him I believe. Can I ask who actually designed him. Was it a joint effort?
Tom: Ron and I designed his character/personality together. Ron designed his visual alone.
Paul: I'd like to rewind...... I'd be negligent not ask... how do you mean Eric embodied the best of you and Ron Frenz. Please can you expand upon that thought further?
Tom: Eric was the kind of guy Ron and I wanted to become when (if?!?) we ever grew up.
Paul: Is there any chance at all he could make a comeback? Is there potential for him to make an appearance in the MCU?
Tom: Your guesses are as good as mine.
Paul: Just departing from comics for a minute or two. As an accomplished writer of THOR, may I ask what you think of the movies in general? Your thoughts on the Thor movies would be invaluable? Were you invited to any showings of the movies? Did you get a name check in the credits?
Tom: I enjoyed all the Thor movies even though the character bore little resemblance to the Thor in the comics. I was invited to the Marvel friends and family showings, but wasn't name checked in any of them.
Paul: Does that irritate you? It would if I were in your shoes.
Tom: No, I'm not the only Thor writer who wasn't name checked or invited to a movie premiere. Since they didn't use my and Ron's stuff, there wasn't any reason to include us.
Paul: Can you pick a favourite of all the movies?
Tom: Of the Thor movies--Ragnarök
Paul: After Thor you and Ron Frenz moved over to Spidergirl. She was a fun new character in a potential future of the Marvel Universe? My question is who came up with the concept?
Tom: I started the ball rolling, but Ron jumped right in and made the character his own.
Paul: There were other characters and titles in her timeline. I believe you had a fair bit of involvement with them.
Tom: I had involvement with every one of them and wrote most of them.
Paul: Yet Spidergirl outlived all the other titles by far. She was extremely popular. What do you put that down to?
Tom: The readers liked Mayday and enjoyed her stories.
Paul: Could it simply be the Spiderman legacy that helped sales?
Tom: I have always thought the soap opera was the deciding factor for any comic book character. To make the readership like the character, enjoy spending time with him/her and care about what was happening in the character's life. Spider-Girl hit that soap opera sweetspot. The Spidey legacy may have helped initially, but too many other Spidey books haven't had Spider-Girl's longevity. If the internet is to be trusted. (Which, I appreciate is not always perfect by any means) the sales figures for Spidergirl were pretty solid.
Paul: Why did it come to an end? Or was it a planned conclusion? Is that a fair question?
Tom: The powers-that-were at Marvel wanted to do a big push on Arana. They figured she would be more popular if they changed her name to Spider-Girl and gave her a "hot" new creative team. We lasted 13 years. I doubt she lasted 13 issues.
Paul: Would it be fair to say the experience left you slightly more than annoyed?
Tom: That's the biz!
Paul: Can you comment at all in your experiences at Marvel how much the creation of Image comics made a difference to the industry?
Tom: Previous to Image, comic creators either worked for one of the established companies or left the industry. Image gave creators an additional option. If you were successful, you did great with Image. If not, that's the biz.
Paul: Can you say at all about how much technology has altered the comic industry? It may affect artists more than writers but in your long career how have new developments in technology altered your approach to writing?
Tom: Aside from the switch from typewriters to computers, the new tech hasn't really affected writers. However, I do miss the days when comics were hand lettered on the art boards.
Paul: Has technology altered the way you read comics at all? Such things as Marvel Unlimited exists now where you may be able to read many of the comics you have written via a tablet or a computer. Does that appeal to you, or do you prefer paper comics?
Tom: It all depends on the material. Some comics are easier to obtain online. Some are in my basement. I'm more interested in the actual material than the delivery system.
Paul: Covid slight knocked the convention world, but in general is that a part of your career you enjoy?
Tom: I do enjoy going to cons.
Paul: Do you have any fun con stories you are allowed to share?
Paul: Have you ever been star struck at a con?
Tom: I have been starstruck many times, like when I first met Stan, Roy, John Romita, Gil Kane and so many other great writers and artists.
Paul: Could you expand at all upon those experiences please, to us humble fans they sound incredible.
Tom: They were incredible, but too many years have passed for me to remember any details.
Paul: In which case may I leave you with one final question please. That is simply, what does the future hold for Mr Tom DeFalco? Are there any more stories to write? Where might I as a fan see you in five years’ time?
Tom: I still write for Archie on a regular basis. If I'm still around in five years, you may find me at a con...if you look hard enough. (I'm kind of expensive so I don't get invited to all that many.) There are always more stories to write, and they aren't limited to comics.
Paul: Is that a subtle way to suggest you might be considering a novel or a move toward writing for television or films?
Tom: in terms of doing things other than comics, t'was ever thus. I always tell unpublished writers to become a writer first and someone who also does comics second. The world will always need storytellers--in a variety of media.
Paul: That is incredibly good advice. Thank you for your time.