Midwinter in the House of Mystery with Lilah Sturges – Interview
As I changed online homes I’ve been reposting some past content that particularly interested me, many of them being interviews I conducted, and this one is a decade old but I thought had some great Lilah Sturges content as she shared her thoughts on both comics and speculative fiction in general.
We talked a lot about House of Mystery which for obvious reasons can lead you down so many stories and conversation topics and she took the most mundane questions I gave and made them into thoughtful talking points.
Since this interview was conducted Lilah has gone on to write several other comics including for one of my faves, The Lumberjanes!
Hope you enjoy!
Today we have a man of many talents, another member of the Clockwork Storybook crew! Lilah Sturges has two novels coming out from PYR, Midwinter (this March) and its sequel the Office of Shadow.
She is also the current writer of my favorite comic being published by DC or Marvel, The House of Mystery, and it has just been announced that she will be co-writing The Justice Society of America with Bill Willingham, the same team who brings us Jack of Fables.
I want to welcome Lilah as we talk House of Mystery, short fiction, Midwinter, Alan Moore, Gene Wolfe, and more!
Jay — What got you started in comics? What were you reading that led you to being a comic creator?
Lilah Sturges— Well, there were three books that blew my mind in my late teens that got me reading comics, and those were Maus, Sandman, and Watchmen. I’m very fortunate that my friend [novelist] Chris Roberson has excellent taste in comics, because he was the one who pushed them on me. All of the comics that eventually became the Vertigo line were the ones I devoured on a monthly basis.
What got me started writing comics was pure serendipity. I’d never considered writing comics as a career; not because I didn’t want to, but because I always saw “comic book writer” as a job that normal people couldn’t actually get, like “movie star” or “astronaut.”
In the late 90’s, I was involved in a writing group that included Bill Willingham, Chris Roberson, and Mark Finn, and I wrote gobs of short stories, two novellas, and a novel during that time. Several years later, after the group had broken up, I’d nearly given up trying to succeed as a novelist when I got a call from Bill Willingham asking me if I’d like to pitch something to Vertigo; they were looking for new talent.
Well, this being Vertigo, I figured I had to try, so I pitched something and it got rejected and I pitched some more things and they got rejected and after two years of that I’d nearly given up trying to succeed as a comic book writer when I got the job writing Jack of Fables with Bill.
Jay — Thus far your projects suggest an interest in the fantastic, and when I say that I mean variety and a without limits (as the term ‘fantasy; would imply) not the marketing term. Are you a longtime fan or is this happenstance?
Lilah Sturges— I’ve always been most attracted to those stories that could invoke that sense of wonder. When I was a kid, it was the Narnia books and Star Wars. When I was in middle school, I discovered Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea books, and after that I never turned back. I remember the first time I saw Doctor Who; I was in sixth grade, flipping channels on Sunday morning, and there was this guy in a coat and a scarf, on a spaceship, cracking wise and talking about time travel. My head almost exploded.
It was one of those “Where have you been all my life?” moments.
Jay — Were you familiar with the original run of House of Secrets/House of Mystery?
Lilah Sturges — Like a lot of people in my generation, my first exposure to them was from the appearance of Cain and Abel and their respective houses in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.
I’ve since gone back and read a lot of the original House of Mystery and some of the House of Secrets. One of the defining characteristics of those books is that they were anthologies — in each issue you’d have three or four short stories written and drawn by a variety of people, and the vague conceit was that these stories were being presented by a ghoulish caretaker named Cain. So what we did was to take that concept and rework it in a way that would both maintain some of the flavor of the old series and also revise it for a modern comics readership; i.e., one that doesn’t care to spend money on anthologies.
So we came up with an idea that seemed to be the best of both worlds: an ongoing story, each issue of which would contain at least one short story that would be disconnected from the main narrative and be written and/or drawn by someone else.
Jay — I love that the currency within the House of Mystery is the telling of stories. I also love the choice of the bar as modern incarnation of a waiting place where people would gather, perhaps like around the fire in the past . Why the choice of a bar? Is it because — if what I read was right — that the idea to bring back the title was introduced at a bar?
Lilah Sturges — It’s true that the idea was generated over drinks at a bar — the bar at the Hyatt in San Diego, to be precise — though I don’t know how much that informed the process. We knew from the very beginning that the series would be set in a bar because it seemed like the most obvious place where people would get together and tell tales, as you suggest.
Everything else flowed out of that. Of course, it’s not a really original idea: we ripped it off from Chaucer, and the name of the male protagonist is partially an homage to the innkeeper at the beginning of the Canterbury Tales.
Of course, it’s not just a bar, it’s a kind of exclusive club as well, accessible only to those who are in the know. In that way it’s sort of an homage to those Victorian tales that always seemed to begin with a narrator in a gentleman’s club; “That brings to mind a most fascinating tale which I can scarcely credit . . .”
The notion that you’d pay for your food and drink with stories originated simply as a device that would ensure that somebody was always telling a story, but it also illuminates something central to the human experience, which is that the act of storytelling has real value. It’s more than just a way to pass the time; it’s part of how we learn about what life is and what it means.
Jay — Tell us about the possible literary and historical permanent occupants of the House.
Lilah Sturges — The permanent occupants of the House are our central characters and so we give them leeway to be characters unto themselves. The Poet, for instance, is a little bit of Oscar Wilde, a little bit of John Keats, and a little bit more of Lord Byron, but he’s not actually any of those people. He has his own unique personal history that will get explored over time, as does every other permanent resident of the place.
The secondary cast, however, has been engineered with a rather more direct intent. From the beginning I always knew that there were certain kinds of stories that I wanted to tell. I wanted to tell paranormal tales set in Victorian London, but I also wanted to tell a story set in 1970’s Manhattan. Or in outer space in the year 2000 (as viewed from the perspective of 1950). Or in the Goblin city of Stormfort during the eventful fourth year of Hrogtar. And so on. Each of those supporting cast members is a window into a genre or sub-genre of story that I want to feature at some point.
Jay — At the very beginning of the first issue of House of Mystery you give us the owners of the two houses (Mystery and Secret). Tell us about them.
Lilah Sturges — These are Cain and Abel, the original caretakers of the House of Mystery and the House of Secrets respectively. They were never really characters of any note until Neil Gaiman used them in the supporting cast of Sandman, and that’s where we snatched them from. The conceit has been that these two are brothers — perhaps the brothers from the Book of Genesis, perhaps not — who have been re-enacting the story of Cain and Abel since forever. To wit, Cain spends a lot of time murdering his brother. Fortunately for Abel, he never stays dead long. How they fit in to the current House of Mystery is itself an ongoing secret, and thus we won’t discuss it further.
Jay — You seem to be playing with the oral tradition of storytelling, from your own narrative and the characters involved. Do you have an interest in the subject itself?
Lilah Sturges — I’ve been fascinated by the subject for a very long time. The oral tradition of storytelling is a very different animal than the literary version that we engage in. It’s performance-based; it’s a rite of intensification.
It’s a way for people to come together and experience a shared worldview, bond with one another. And it’s that notion of communicating worldview, the shared interpretation of the world and the events that take place in it, that really interests me and that is central thematically to the over-arching story of House of Mystery.
Jay — Why do you think the anthology, or short fiction in general — long time staples to fantastic storytelling have such a hard time in comics now?
Lilah Sturges — That’s a good question. I think in genre fiction in general and in comics specifically, purchases are driven by name recognition: a particular artist or a particular writer or a particular character is the impetus for a purchase.
An anthology muddles that, asking the reader to part with their money for an unknown quantity, when the shelves are stacked with lots of known quantities. At least I think that’s what it is for me.
Jay — Are you a fan of short fiction yourself?
Lilah Sturges — Generally, as a reader, I loathe short fiction. I find it unpleasant to get all caught up in the world of the story only to be kicked back out of it so soon. It’s like waiting in line for an hour at Disney for a ride that only lasts two minutes.
So it takes a really good writer to make me work up the appetite for their short stories. In prose, Borges, Michael Swanwick, Charles Stross (whose longer work, strangely, I can’t get into), Kelly Link, A. M. Homes. In comics, Mike Mignola does excellent short stories, as do Eddie Campbell, Evan Dorkin, and Brian Wood when he’s showing his sensitive side.
Jay — I’ve always thought the brevity was the issue for people with anthologies. Even if you put Batman in a short fiction by Alan Moore and drawn by Frank Frazetta (or I don’t know, whatever works now, Brian Bendis and Alex Ross) and it sits next to three comics that feature Batman in a full story for the same price and I think there is the issue of simple comfort of going with what you know.
For me, most comics take me about 3 minutes to read anyway so the difference is really negligible. House of Mystery, however, has some weight to it in terms of dialogue that almost makes me feel like the secondary story is a full bonus by the time I get to it. Is it something you are conscious of in terms of making sure you put down enough words to compensate for the format?
Lilah Sturges — That’s the hardest part of writing the series, definitely. You want to give the reader the bang for their buck both in terms of the short story that’s sandwiched in there, and the framing sequence as well. It can be fairly challenging, though, when you’ve got a short story that’s taking up ten pages of a twenty-two page comic (I think the worst offender was thirteen).
One thing that makes me feel better about the lower page count for the framing sequence is the protagonist Fig’s ongoing narration. It adds weight to the story and it gives me a chance to play with language and be intellectually self-indulgent. So it’s all to the good. In my mind I always feel like you’re getting at the very least one issue’s worth of comic from House of Mystery. And maybe sometimes a bit more. That’s the goal, anyway.
Jay — What has been your personal favorite tale spun thus far in House of Mystery?
Lilah Sturges— My favorite of the ones that I’ve written is probably still Jordan’s Talefrom issue 5, exquisitely drawn by Sean Murphy. Jordan is the one person in the bar who’s never paid off a dime of his tab by telling a story, because he’s the worst storyteller in the world. In this issue, Jordan tells one of his stories to another patron, and the contrast between what Jordan tells us and what actually happened as seen in the artwork, is an exemplar of the noting that the tale really is in the telling.
Jay — Issue 5 tells some more back-story of Fig Keele. A girl whose favorite times were a childhood’s fantastic adventures/stories turned into books with her father, later her chosen profession of architecture turned into cold math, her father’s next book was Science Fiction. Are you telling a literary story in comics about escapism?
Lilah Sturges— One thing that I would mention first is that I think “escapism” has an undeserved negative connotation. When done well, escapism is transcendent and serves a vital function both as personal catharsis and as shared cultural experience. It would be easy to dismiss Harry Potter as sheer escapism, but look at how it unified a generation of young readers.
You could say the same thing about Hannah Montana or Lost. Regardless of their artistic merits, they provide cultural touchstones that inform how those who share them see the world and each other.
That said, yes, there’s a direct symbolic relationship between Fig’s disillusionment with the idea of architecture and her father’s mediocrity as a science fiction author. We all romanticize life as children, and we believe that the contents of our imaginations have intrinsic value. But as we mature, we’re pressured to sacrifice our individual expression at the altars of utility and conformity.
That sounds worse than it is; if Fig never studied formal architecture, what good would she be as an architect? She could draw pretty pictures of houses that nobody could or would build. This is one of the basic dilemmas of being an artist.
Jay — I want to clarify that I think all fiction is escapism in some sense and the terms wasn’t used in a derogatory sense.
Whether you are JK Rowling or Mishima Yukio it’s — I think — impossible to argue that escapism in some form is not part of the process. Escapism is never a problem for me; for me the door is being open regardless what fiction you read, I’m more concerned with the question of are we running or trying to find a new vantage point- are we escaping just to run to another place or to confront etc.
With that in mind, what were and are some of your favorite rabbit holes, if you will?
Lilah Sturges — What I like best are those rare books that manage to do both at the same time; those things that draw you into a world so compelling that you get swept up in it, and when you’re done you realize that you’ve gained an insight that affects you or changes you.
Kurt Vonnegut’s books did that for me as a teenager. Cat’s Cradle rocked my world when I was seventeen — it was like seeing through the veil of the “real” world. Learning that there’s no there there. That’s an empowering thing for a seventeen-year-old to grasp.
I’ve always gravitated to those things that have stirred my sense of wonder while seeming grounded in reality. The Dune books are magnificent in that regard. Herbert’s world is so compellingly real that you feel like it truly exists somewhere outside your imagination, and the magic of it does what magic is supposed to do; i.e., create dazzling metaphors for things that are hard to put into words. I’m also very fond of Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun series. The air is a little more rarified in these books than in some others, but so very worth the effort.
That, and old Superman comics.
Jay — I love Gene Wolfe, who I think is the master of the first person POV, and recently I interviewed novelist Matthew Stover in which he said of Wolfe:
“I think it’s probably Wolfe’s steadfast refusal to indulge in easy answers that I find most attractive. In a Gene Wolfe book, a complex issue demands a complex resolution . . . and all solutions are imperfect.”
You are a novelist and a comic book writer. Do you find that the latter — particularly a DC or Marvel title — form in some ways requires answers? A stated purpose that a prose work doesn’t, and is it a quality of the medium or its fan base that motivates that if that is so?
Do you feel you need to provide answers in your last issue in a book called House of Mystery? When I see some HoM detractions, I see a lot of people who wouldn’t enjoy Wolfe, thus I always thing you are on the right track!
Lilah Sturges— Comics is a unique medium in so many ways, but the one that’s the screwiest is how the vast majority of comics that are published are about superheroes. It’s bizarre; what if 90% of television shows were medical dramas? So in one sense you can say that superheroes and comics (American comics, anyway — let’s not even get into manga here) go hand in hand.
There are, of course, alternatives, and some of the most widely recognized and critically acclaimed comics are utterly different: Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home come to mind. Vertigo comics, which publishes House of Mystery, straddles a fairly comfortable middle ground between the two. There are far fewer content limitations than in a mainstream DCU book, but I doubt you’d see something as dense and oblique as Chris Ware’s work published there.
With House of Mystery in particular, my intent has always been to tell a compelling overarching story that contains a number of overlapping mysteries, but to resolve those mysteries in satisfying ways. I prefer thematic ambiguity to plot ambiguity.
I love Kelly Link’s short stories but I always feel like they end a page too early. I prefer resolutions. I don’t, however, want them handed to me on a silver platter.
I think it’s safe to say that if you find House of Mystery to be too unsatisfying in terms of “answers” then Gene Wolfe is probably not a safe alternative!
Jay — The prose story in issue #5 caught me by surprise. What was the thought process behind that extra?
Lilah Sturges — I didn’t fail to note that you avoided specifying whether or not it was a “nice” surprise! Regardless, it was an opportunity that I capitalized on, not one that I engineered. Vertigo asked me to do a page of prose that could be anything I wanted.
I think they were looking for a supplementary essay or something, and instead I turned in this weird little story of unrequited love between a dragon and a bouncer. Of course, the dragon’s identity turns out to be important later on; this is one of those books where everything counts. I’m trying to hide as many little treasures behind the walls of the House as I can.
Jay — I enjoyed the prose piece actually and I’ve always wondered why something similar had not been utilized before, considering how many novelists are dipping into comics. I think that the tapestry that is House of Mystery seems to be lends itself well for another pattern and very much enjoyed it. I was just wondering what reaction — if any — did editorial have?
Lilah Sturges — The text piece was actually the editors’ idea — they sometimes publish little essays in the backs of the comics called On the Ledge that tries to sell the book to readers. But for this one, they said I could do anything I wanted, so I thought a story about a lovelorn dragon would be just the thing.
I think it makes a nice little garnish to the rest of the series, but you wouldn’t want to overdo it. If you want to write short stories, write short stories. But I can definitely see doing something like that again, a little taste of something unexpected.
Jay — You have a novel coming out from PYR next year — can you tell us a bit about it?
Lilah Sturges— Midwinter is the story of a group of inmates at a prison in the Seelie Kingdom of Faerie, who are sent on a secret mission that will win them each a full pardon, assuming they survive. It’s sort of The Dirty Dozen with elves. In some ways it’s a straight-ahead epic fantasy novel, but at the same time it’s sort of a loving subversion of the epic fantasy novel; there’s a subtle metafictive element to it that I hope keeps it from being just another fantasy book about people with swords and magic hacking away at each other. But at the end of the day, it is a fantasy book about people with swords and magic hacking away at each other. And there’s nothing at all wrong with that.
Jay — “A Dirty Dozen with Elves”. I was wondering from where are you pulling Elf concept. Is it a Tolkienish variety, perhaps a more Norse variety like Poul Anderson employed, or something a bit different? Will they be familiar?
Lilah Sturges — These are the Fae (or Fey, if you prefer) folk from European folklore who found their way into Spenser and Shakespeare and thus in to Tolkien and on and on. You can recognize them by their ears.
The world of Midwinter takes Titania and Oberon (and Queen Mab as a separate entity) and then rushes off from there in its own direction. I wasn’t much interested, though, in suffusing Midwinter in the minutiae of Celtic lore. Instead I wanted to create a sense of “verisimilitude” about the world, so I hijacked those familiar names and concepts to my own ends. I should probably state for the record that the notion of Queen Mab and Queen Titania being two separate monarchs is an idea that I stole from Bill Willingham, as is the whole bit about the braids. These were purloined with his permission, of course.
When I originally wrote the novel, it was during our Clockwork Storybook days, and it wasn’t uncommon for us to borrow ideas from one another. So if anyone ever accuses Bill of stealing those ideas from me later on, he can point to this interview and say, “Aha!”
Jay — Is Midwinter the beginning of a set of books you have in mind or is it a standalone work?
Lilah Sturges — Midwinter was conceived as a standalone novel that could also function as the starting point of a series. Its sequel, The Office of Shadow, has just been sold to Pyr books. So I guess it’s officially a series now. If Midwinter is The Dirty Dozen with elves, then The Office of Shadow is The Spy Who Came in from the Coldwith elves.
It’s essentially a spy thriller set in Faery, that also functions as a direct sequel. There’s an overreaching story to be told in the series about the progression of civilization from the traditional “medieval” epic fantasy world through something like a Renaissance and an Industrial Age.
We tend to see magical worlds that have a very fourteenth century vibe, and those with a Victorian feel, but we rarely see the progression. That progression, or a version of it, is the underlying structure of the series. Lest that seem too dry, though, it should be noted that there’s lots of magic and people getting stabbed with swords.
Jay — The shift in art from your framing story to the stories has been fantastic — is their a process in picking a particular artist for each story? Are there plans for perhaps tapping some of artists from the original series?
Lilah Sturges — Yes, and yes. Inasmuch as we’re able, we try to tailor the artist to the tale, or vice-versa.
When we knew we’d be working with Berni Wrightson, for instance (one of the artists from the original series, natch), Bill Willingham wrote a story specifically to highlight his strengths. Conversely, when we were looking for an artist for Willingham’s charmingly grotesque The Hollows, we went looking for an artist who could be simultaneously wonderfully charming and wonderfully grotesque, and Ross Campbell was the perfect man for the job.
Jay — Interesting. What do you think are Wrightson’s strengths?
Lilah Sturges — What I love most about Wrightson is the elegance with which he’s able to render the macabre. He’s done so much work in the horror genre, but his work is much more like the grotesques on a Gothic cathedral than schlock horror. Disturbing but beautiful at the same time.
Jay — How did David Peterson come to mind for doing a segment in House of Mystery? I love Mouse Guard!
Lilah Sturges — He’s someone that Bill had wanted to work with for quite some time. I’m also a huge fan of his, so it was kind of a no-brainer. It was just a question of convincing him to do it.
Jay – He is underrated because there are a lot of unique pacing choices in your title and the guy is able to depict mundane in the dreaming excessively well. Can you speak on your collaborator?
Lilah Sturges — Luca is a total enigma to me, for two primary reasons. The first is that he’s able, without fail, to draw scenes almost exactly the way I see them in my head, only much better rendered.
It happens very often, that I’ll have a certain visual in mind, and with just a few sentences of panel description, Luca can render this, including elements that I couldn’t describe and that didn’t make it into the script. There’s a scene where Cress is spreading a tablecloth in issue three, and Luca drew it precisely the way I imagined, down to the way that the tablecloth waves in the breeze as she does it.
The second reason he’s an enigma to me is more prosaic, but makes the first reason even more uncanny — I’ve never spoken to Luca. He’s Italian and doesn’t speak English, so I’ve never exchanged a single email or phone call with him. It’s very weird, but it is kind of a cool dynamic — I send these scripts out into the ether, and then these gorgeous pages come back. It’s like real magic.
If we’re talking about pipe dreams, then how about a story written by Alan Moore and drawn by Jon J. Muth?
Jay — I was wondering if Peake’s Gormenghast was at all an influence in this (HoM) series?
Lilah Sturges— Interesting. Why do you ask? I have to admit that Titus Groan has been sitting unread on my shelf for a number of years, so I guess the answer must be no, although I suppose there are probably plenty of secondary influences that might have seeped through.
Jay — Something like a house or isolated locale makes me wonder if the undefined sprawl of Gormenghast was an influence, or if not, that something more contemporary like John Crowley’s Edgewood.
I guess Marquez does it as well but not so overtly. You are telling (literally and figuratively) real stories or ‘real’ people that have true gravity and implication but the backdrop itself is the mystery and not always the active one.
In short I just always find something that is a bit grander (in physical scale) than what Lovecraft and a Borges did so brilliantly to be damn cool. It was just the first thing that struck me when I saw the images of the house and stairways going everywhere and nowhere yet people having time to squabble over something like a relationship it just reminded me of some memories I have from prose work.
I hold Peake in the highest regard so it was meant to be a compliment!
It would seem that House of Mystery lends itself, if sales allow, to be an unlimited platform for storytelling. Can discuss how long you have stories outlined for the project?
Lilah Sturges— I’ve already got more ideas for stories than I could ever possibly write for the thing. The overarching story has a built-in conclusion that can do nothing but end the series for good, so it has a built-in self-destruct sequence. Once the main story plays itself out, then it has to stop and make room for something else. But I don’t intend to let that happen for a long, long time.
Jay — It saddens me that that we live in a world where a comic featuring Detective Chimp isn’t a top selling book and isn’t still being published! Is there a Shadowpact arc you still have, or have you detached yourself from it as you work on other projects?
Lilah Sturges— There were plenty of things that I’d hoped to do with the book, but I never really had time to flesh any of them out. The book was canceled very shortly after I took it over. Chimp was a comedy gold mine; all you had to do to get a laugh out of him was just put him on the page and have him open his mouth. Something funny always came out of it.
Jay — You mentioned Moore earlier. Usually, when somebody becomes so practiced an answer you start seeing a dissension, but the oeuvre of Moore and his accomplishments are a steadfast rock. Comic books have had a history — and continue to — of fantastic writers. What is it though about Moore that you think keeps him on that mountain, and is there something that’s been revealed to you more as you work in the medium itself?
Lilah Sturges — Moore is one of those rare creators whose work is almost utterly unimpeachable. In Watchmen he achieved an apotheosis of superhero comics; Watchmen transcends its genre while at the same time being one of the most perfect and genuine examples of the genre ever written. During his run on Swamp Thing he did more or less the same thing with horror comics.
There are comics writers who have a comprehensive understanding of the storytelling medium of comics, and there are comics writers who have a thorough grasp of the historical and literary underpinnings of the medium’s content, but I think Moore may be the only one who has both.
Jay — Earlier you said “this being Vertigo”. While I don’t suggest that any title is not carefully monitored, but one of Karen Berger’s — the Executive Editor of Vertigo — first jobs was editing House of Mystery. Has there been any special interest in the project from up high?
We see and hear Didio quite a bit, but Berger has quietly been running what I think is one of the most outstanding and consistent sources for quality fiction in any medium for going on around 25 years now. Is there a lot of interaction between you and Ms. Berger, and if so, what is it that she brings to the table that puts so much fine product out there?
Lilah Sturges — Yes, Vertigo is a very different environment. In the DC Universe, there’s a lot of coordination among all these different titles that has to take place in order for everything to have any chance of cohering. So what readers often malign as “editorial mandate” is mainly the well-intentioned efforts of the editorial staff to have everything work out in a coherent manner, since everything happens in the same “universe.”
At Vertigo, there’s none of that, so as Executive Editor, Karen Berger’s job is much different. As far as greenlighting content and creators she seems to have an excellent knack and picking people and projects that will appeal to and intrigue the Vertigo readership; a job that’s complicated by the fact that there’s no set “formula” for what makes a good Vertigo book. What do “Fables” and “Scalped” have in common? Not much, except they’re both really good books and they appeal to a certain kind of reader.
As far as the day-to-day creation of the books, Karen is remarkably hands-off. She works very hard at the start to make sure that the books are starting out heading in the right direction, and then she trusts her creators to do what they think is best for the most part. You couldn’t ask for much more than that.
With respect to House of Mystery being her first editing job at DC, we knew it was something she was excited about and wanted to make sure that it was a great Vertigo book, but she certainly wasn’t looming over us, threatening to murder us, as I implied in a promotional piece that I wrote for the book before it came out. Of course, if she really had threatened to murder me, that’s exactly the kind of thing I’d say, now isn’t it.
Fortunately, most everything I turn into Vertigo is vetted and fine-tuned by my fantastic editors, Shelly Bond and her associate Angela Rufino. If Karen thinks highly of my work, it would be largely due to their influence.
Jay — Would you care to share some of those failed Vertigo pitches you mentioned?
Lilah Sturges — Let’s see. There was the one I did with [artist] Peter Gross about the rebellious fairies, and there was the one about the girl detective in Los Angeles, and there was the one where some teenagers did something horrible and then paid for it for the rest of their lives. You can’t win ’em all.
It doesn’t help that I’m terrible at writing pitches, just awful. I think I could make even the most fascinating premise sound dull over the course of two pages.
Jay — It’s been recently announced that you and Bill Willingham will be taking the reigns from Geoff Johns on JSA. It doesn’t get much bigger in profile than following the current run. What is your exposure to JSA and what do you identify as the single most important quality or ingredient to a JSA story?
Lilah Sturges — My first experience with the JSA is Geoff’s original run on the book with David Goyer, starting back in 1999 or thereabouts. With apologies to Roy Thomas and a slew of Golden Age creators, I’ve always thought of Geoff’s JSA as the quintessence of the team.
Geoff did a whole bunch of fantastic stories with those characters and he’ll be a tough act to follow. Fortunately for me, this isn’t my first experience of following a tough act — almost everyone who read it considered John Rogers’ run on Blue Beetle to be a near masterpiece, and I was able to follow his act and finish out the book without making too poor a showing. So I try not to worry about the specter of Geoff Johns overmuch.
If you had to pick one key element of what makes the JSA work, that would be its sense of history. They’re the very first team of “mystery men.” They fought the Nazis during World War II. They have a pedigree that any writer absolutely must respect.
You could ostensibly take the Justice League or the Avengers in a radically new direction and still keep a good portion of your fan base, but if you tried to introduce a JSA lineup that didn’t include Flash, Green Lantern and Wildcat, you’d have riots in the streets.
So clearly “what the JSA is about” to me has to do with its history and continuity. It shows in the way the that team constantly recruits legacy heroes to train as the next generation, and in how they’re the only super team in comics that have members who are my grandparents’ contemporaries. That’s just cool.
There’s also all the punching of villains. That’s pretty important, too.