David F. Walker Talks About His Marvel Work, BITTER ROOT and NAOMI

January 23, 2019

 

 

David F. Walker is an award-winning comic book writer and  author But his career has included time as a filmmaker, journalist, and educator as well. His work in comic books ranges from SHAFT (Dynamite Entertainment), LUKE CAGE, OCCUPY AVENGERS, POWER MAN AND IRON FIST, NIGHTHAWK, FURY (Marvel Comics), CYBORG (DC Comics), THE ARMY OF DR. MOREAU, TARZAN ON THE PLANET OF THE APES (Dark Horse/Boom), and NUMBER 13 (Dark Horse Comics).

 

He recently launched BITTER ROOT, with Chuck Brown and Sanford Greene, over at Image. It's an enticing story set during the Harlem Renaissance about a family of monster hunters. So far the book has been not only well received by fans but critics and fellow creators as well.

 

Today sees the release of NAOMI, which is co-written with Brian Michael Bendis and illustrated by Jamal Campbell. It's the second book in the "Wonder Comics" line over at DC. Both Walker and Bendis have stated that this book is in continuity, with deep ties to the DCU.

 

No matter what project Walker writes, they area always filled with humor and emotion. He has delivered some of the most entertaining and thought provoking comics in the past ten years, I can't wait to see what he brings us next.

 

THIS INTERVIEW TOOK PLACE PRIOR TO THE RELEASE OF BITTER ROOT AND NAOMI

 

COMIC LOUNGE: When did you decide to become a writer?

 

DAVID WALKER: That's a good question... I mean, I was always writing stuff, even as a kid. I think that I went through some various phases throughout my life, where I wanted to be a cartoonist and a stand-up comedian, or a filmmaker. As I look back now, in hindsight, I realize what I always wanted to be was, a storyteller. That goes back to when I was a little kid, I was always obsessed with telling stories. In one form or another, this has been ever since I was a little kid.

 

When the writing bug really, really hit me was in college. It was at the same time when I was, sort of, falling out of love with drawing. I wanted to be a comic book artist and I wasn't very good at it, but I realized that I was "OK", or had the possibility of being "OK", as a writer.

 

 

COMIC LOUNGE: What were some of the most influential comic books for you, growing up?

 

WALKER: I tell people that one of the comic books that I loved as a kid, was a black & white PLANET OF THE APES magazine from Marvel. That was huge for me, I had almost every issue, I loved the "Planet of the Apes" movies. This was back in the days before home videos and streaming, so if you loved the movie, you would be lucky if there was a novelization or something, with the "Apes" movies there was the comics. I was a huge Marvel head when I was a kid, so I read a lot of MARVEL TEAM-UP and MARVEL 2-IN-1. Those were a couple of my favorite titles, because it seemed like you got more "bang for your buck", there were always a lot of characters in those titles.

 

By late 70's, early 80's I was reading UNCANNY X-MEN. This was during when Chris Claremont and John Byrne were doing the book. That was me in junior high/high school, getting into that. Then marveling at George Perez in NEW TEEN TITANS. Those two books were really influential with me. I had also just started to really discover independent comics right around that same time. The "Days of Future Past" story in X-MEN #141 and 142, blew my mind. I read those in seventh grade, but shortly after that, within the next couple years, I was reading Howard Caykin's AMERICAN FLAGG. Which was probably inappropriate for a kid my age. Then Matt Wagner started doing GRENDEL, I remember getting the first issue of GRENDEL and when MAGE hit getting those. I was reading ELFQUEST, dabbling a little bit in CEREBUS.

 

We're talking junior high/high school, right around the time that I'm discovering that there's more to comics than Marvel and DC. So it was really this huge, wide breath of genres and talents. That was when I really started to get into it, "Oh there's more to it than just superhero stuff".

 

 

COMIC LOUNGE: I wanna jump over and talk about POWER MAN AND IRON FIST, which was a huge hit among fans. Was writing them a dream come true? Do you wish you could have continued the series?

 

WALKER: That's YES to both of those questions. When I first started talking to Marvel, even before I started writing for them, I remember having a conversation with some editors and Axel Alonso. Axel said to me, at the time, to make a list of 10 characters that I would really love to write. He said "Don't think of any characters being too big or too small If you want to write Spider-Man, put him on the list. If you want to write X-Men, put them on the list". So I put together the list, and at the top if the list was Luke Cage and Iron Fist.

 

I remember when I emailed him that list, and some other editors, number one was Luke Cage and Iron Fist and in parenthesis, it said as a team. There were some other ones on the list for sure, but that really was my dream book. It was a title I loved as a kid. I had been reading both of their individual titles, like POWER MAN or LUKE CAGE: HERO FOR HIRE, and IRON FIST, then they teamed up. I had a huge chunk of those issues. A lot of those were in the days before I was getting comic in a comic shop. I was still getting comics at 7-11 and the grocery store, and places like that. But I had a good sizable run, especially a lot of the stuff written by Jo Duffy and drawn by Kerry Gammill. I really, really, loved those characters.

 

So I had these ideas kicking around in my head, as far back as high school, of things I'd like to do with them. I was really grateful for the opportunity and I wish the book had lasted longer. Sales had started to drop off when the made the decision to cancel it and I had really pushed and fought and said "Can you just give us 20 issues?". I had mapped out a story that was gonna take 20 issues to tell. Even though I had fun writing the CIVIL WAR II tie-in, that had sort of derailed my plans for a few issues. But I was able to combine some of what I was hoping to do with the series within the CIVIL WAR II context.

 

I was definitely heartbroken and dejected when the title got cancelled. In part because, at that point, it was my second experience while working at Marvel, where I had mapped out much further than I needed to and then the book was cancelled. So I sort of had to reshift and juggle things around to try and get the story complete. It had happened in NIGHTHAWK and it happened in POWER MAN AND IRON FIST. It happened again in OCCUPY AVENGERS and to a certain extent in LUKE CAGE. But by then I think I was a little bit more prepared for it. I had understood the mechanics of working at Marvel so it wasn't quite as disappointing. I had given it my all, but I hadn't planned as far ahead.

 

With NIGHTHAWK, that was supposed to be 12 issues. With POWER MAN AND IRON FIST, we had always talked about 20 issues. With OCCUPY AVENGERS the magic number was 14 or 15, I knew going into that one it want going to be more than 14 or 15. But then they said it was only gonna be 9. We said " Can we at least do 10?". In a lot of ways the cancellation of OCCUPY AVENGERS was more of a heartbreak than POWER MAN AND IRON FIST.

 

 

COMIC LOUNGE: You have 2 new books coming out, one of them being BITTER ROOT. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the book and what inspired it?

 

WALKER: It's interesting, Chuck Brown (my co-writer) and Sanford

 

Greene, the primary artist on POWER MAN AND IRON FIST, this was an idea that they had kicking around for a long time. It kind of went on the backburner while Sanford and I were working on POWER MAN AND IRON FIST. When the book got cancelled, Image approached Sanford about doing a book. He talked to Chuck and said "You know, let's dust off BITTER ROOT and let's bring David on board."

 

So I came on board, and at that point it was still a loosely structured idea. But the tie was already there, BITTER ROOT was already there. That was in reference to a combination of things. One, was that the Sangerye family do root work, they take roots and herbs, and that's what they use to make the serum that they use to cure people who have been turned into monsters. But then it also gets into the "bitter roots", the bitterness that has sort of grown in this country, the hatred and discrimination So it's got a multi-layered, multi-textured meaning in the title.

When I came on board I was like "Oh Yeah! This title works for me". If it had been something that I thought didn't work, I definitely would have caused a stink, haha.

 

But like I said, it was a series of ideas that had some bits and pieces of the story. It's like a tell my students " There's a difference between a really good idea and a really good story". A really good story grows from a really good idea. But you can have a bunch of really great ideas, if there not connected or a certain flow to them, then that means that the story isn't there. By the time I came on board, there was a bunch of great ideas, but the story wasn't fully there yet. So part of what I did was, Chuck and I sat down and began to shape the story. I think with Chuck, he's done a lot of writing, short stories and one-shots, but if I remember correctly he hadn't really done anything with a significantly long run. So the initial ideas for BITTER ROOT, when I was looking at it, there was a lot of "everything in the kitchen sink" within in the first few issues. I was like " No we should write this as if it's going to last a while. There's no need to reveal everything in issue 1 or in the first 2 or 3 issues. Let's write this out and make this last. Instead of it being like a fast food meal, make this like a fifteen course, gourmet prepared feast."

 

 

COMIC LOUNGE: Touching on that, what are the long term plans for the book?

 

WALKER: Chuck and I have mapped out, I'm gonna say conservatively, 15 issues worth of material. The first 5 issues, which is the first story arc, is written and Sanford is working on issue #4 as we speak. So we talked about what issues 6-15 look like and where the story will go, but we're also waiting to see what sales are like, hoe the book is received critically and how the book does financially. I think for all three of us, going into creator owned, it's one of those things that no matter how much you think about it, or dream about it, or even prepare for it, it's different when you get there.

 

I was just talking to Sanford several days back deciding not what we're going to do in the second arc, but when and how we're gonna do it. I was very clear with him, I said " I think all three of us have made and learned a lot along the way. We've made some mistakes along the way and what we need to do, at this point, is apply all that and move forward so we don't keep repeating these patterns that we had in the first arc". Most of these are just production and scheduling and business things. Folks who have never done this before, I'm assuming a lot of people have made these stumbles along the way.

I'm hoping we can do somewhere between 15 and 20 issues total. But a lot of that is gonna be dependent on, again, how people respond to the book, how sales are and that sort of thing. Part of me feels like that sounds like sort of a cop out, or to cynical. But that goes back to your question about POWER MAN AND IRON FIST. At this point in my career, the vast majority of stuff that I've worked on ended before we planned for it to end. I think part of being professional is being prepared for that reality.

 

 

COMIC LOUNGE: You're also launching NAOMI, with Brian Michael Bendis, for the Wonder Comics line. Can you talk a little bit about that?

 

WALKER: Yeah, you know, Brian and I have been friends for many years. We actually teach together at Portland State University, so we've been working together for about 3 or 4 years. Late last year, he got really sick, he was in the hospital for quite some time. You know when I tell this story, people think I'm joking when I say it, but he was REALLY sick. He was in the hospital, on painkillers, and kind of in and out of it a lot. I was at his bedside for much of it and he would say, "When I get out of the hospital, we're gonna do a book together", I was like "OK!". When you got a friend who you're literally not sure if he's gonna live to see the next day, you kind of just say whatever you can say to make them feel better.

 

 

So fast forward, maybe about 2 or 3 months, Brian was out of the hospital and doing much better. He comes to me and says, "Hey DC greenlit that book we're gonna do", I was like "What the hell book are you talking about?". He said " You know, the book we kept talking about when I was in the hospital", I was like " Oh, you were serious. I thought that was more the painkillers and the pain and fear talking, but you're serious".

 

So then we sat down and got really serious and talking about it. Even the conversations we had in the hospital kind of dated back to conversations we would have when we were teaching. Which was a lot of us talking about our philosophies and storytelling and the sort of stories that we not only wanted to read, but that we wanted to tell and the sort of characters that we wanted to explore. So that's where NAOMI came from. We Talked about the things that were important to us, as both adults, creators and fans of the medium.

 

So we started to craft this story about a young girl who leads a somewhat ordinary life, but then she witnesses some extraordinary event. Those events are tied into the larger DC Universe and she begins to wonder if they're also connected to some unanswered questions about her life. As she begins to explore her life, she's adopted and she doesn't know who her biological parents. As she starts investigating and looking for answers, she uncovers what is going to be a VERY big reveal within the DCU.

 

 

COMIC LOUNGE: If you could say one thing to get fans excited about picking up NAOMI, what would you say?

 

WALKER: Well, there's actually two things I would say, one is the art is amazing. Jamal Campbell, who's doing all the art, he's doing pencils, inks, and colors. It's some of the most beautiful storytelling, I've seen in a very long time. Brian and I have talked about it, that at the end of the day, the art is really going to be the star of this book, Jamal is the star of this book. Brian and I came together to tell the story that we wanted to tell, but in his own beautiful way, Jamal made that story his and he's taking it to a whole other level. Which is something you always hope for in a collaborative process. That the artist will bring something even more than what the writers have envisioned.

 

So that's the first part, this is gonna be Jamal's breakout book and being apart of it is amazing. I worked with Bilquis Everly a couple years back, on SHAFT, and I knew then that she was going to be an amazing talent. What I didn't know, was how much more amazing she was gonna get. Especially from her doing WONDER WOMAN to the stuff she's doing now, with the Neil Gaiman/Sandman Universe stuff. It's like "Oh my God!". That's what it's like with Jamal. I see his past work and it's great, but this is next level stuff. So that's first and foremost.

 

The other thing too, and it's not to sort of divert the attention from what I'm doing, because I think what I'm bring to this this is some really solid writing. But, having know Brian for nearly 20 years as both a fan and a friend, some of the writing is so heartfelt from him and there's a level of humanity to it. I was at his house a week or two ago for  a story meeting and I was like, "This is some next level stuff". I think that his move from Marvel to DC has reinvigorated him as a writer, in a way that not everybody gets that opportunity, a chance to be reinvigorated in that way. You can become comfortable in what you're doing. He could have stuck it out and stayed at Marvel and things would have been ok. But he wanted to do some thing different, he needed to do something different.

 

I think more so than what he's doing with the mainstream DC stuff, I'm not getting into the Jinxworld stuff like PEARL and COVER and all those other ones. I'm talking the stuff that's grounded more in the traditional superhero stuff. I think NAOMI is gonna be that book that really speaks in a much more beautiful and lyrical language, then out of all the other stuff that he's doing and of course I'm helping him do it. Haha. Not to toot my own horn, but I've been doing a little heavy lifting on this thing.

 

COMIC LOUNGE: After talking to both you and Brian, I think I'm equally as excited for NAOMI as I was for YOUNG JUSTICE. I'm really looking forward checking the book out.

 

WALKER: A book like YOUNG JUSTICE is a book that hardcore fans are gonna love and dive right into it. All the "Wonder Comics" titles are, in one way another, building off of people's nostalgia and love of these particular characters. NAOMI is something new though, it's the only of the titles in the "Wonder Comics" imprint that's all new, a completely new character. I think part of what Brian and I are trying to do, it was really unconscious in the beginning, is we're trying to create an entry point for new readers.

 

One of the things we talk about all the time is our love for comics. It goes back to the question you asked , "What were some of your favorite comics as a kid, that you read?", the list is endless. I'm always terrible with the numbers, there's a couple, like AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 121 and 122, the "Death of Gwen Stacy", where I was like "Oh my God". I can't remember the number, but there was a couple issues of FANTASTIC FOUR when John Byrne took over that were, to me at the time, next level. Those were comics that kept me in love with the medium and the superhero genre.

 

But there's also that sense of discovery, that's such a great thing, which is part of what Brian and I want to do. We want to try and get that sense of discovery from people, who haven't fell in love with comics yet. But it seems pretty daunting to pick up like X-Men #1000 or Thor #578, or whatever number they're on. That's the thing that's pretty exciting to me.

 

I have friends who have kids that are between the ages of 8 and 12. Some of them don't read comics at all, but NAOMI is the comic we're trying to write that might be their first comic. There's a level of arrogance to say it that way but, you never know. That's one of the things that Brian and I talk about. There was a moment early on, when we were developing it, that I think both of us were in a somewhat cynical place. I was talking about trying to subvert some of the tropes we've seen in the past, and see if we can try to avoid some of the standard storytelling conventions. A couple days later Brian was like, "No, we really can't" and I said " What do you mean?". He said " There's gonna be people, when they read NAOMI, they will never have watched a 'Harry Potter' movie or read a 'Harry Potter' book or seen any of the 'Star Wars' movies. "If we're gonna be exploring the hero's journey and myth of the hero, all those work and archetypes and conventions work. So it's our job to make it fresh and new, not just to old cynical people like us but to young readers".

 

The moment he said that, something clicked, and I knew he was right. There's 10 year old kids right now, who haven't watched any of the "Harry Potter" movies or read any of the "Harry Potter" books. So that journey that Harry takes, which is very much the classic "hero's journey", they don't even know it yet. I discovered Joseph Campbell and his concept of a  THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES after seeing "Star Wars" or maybe "Empire Strikes Back", when people had really started talking about what he had written. Then Christopher Vogler wrote a book called THE HERO'S JOURNEY, I believe, and that was stuff I discovered in high school and college.

 

It's remembering, that for everybody, at some point, something is new and they're discovering it for the first time. I have a friend, who's son just turned 14, and sometimes we'll have a movie night and he'll watch a movie for the first time. It's a movie that I've seen, maybe 30 or 40 years ago, when I was his age. But to him it's "brand new" and he's like "Man I've never seen anything like this". I have to be reminded that I can't be so blinded by my own cynicism, that it affects the stories that I'm trying to tell, because the stories that I'm trying to tell, should invoke a sense of wonder.

 

 

COMIC LOUNGE:  Do you guys have long term goals or plans for the book? Do you have a set story or is it something that could potentially continue on?

 

WALKER: It's both. The commitment as I understand it, is that DC gave us a commitment if 6 issues. I think all the "Wonder Comics" are committed for 6 issues. I think YOUNG JUSTICE has already proven to be so popular, that they've already greenlit it for more. Brian and I have talked about it, which goes back to you question and how it applied to BITTER ROOT, we have a lot of stories we want to tell beyond this initial one. The nature of the market, what retailers are ordering and what people are going to the stores to buy, make it so that you have to have a "Plan A" and "Plan B".

 

Your "Plan A" is, a story that you would like to tell over 15 to 20 or 50 issues. Then there's a story you plan to tell over 5 or 6 issues. The story you tell over 5 or 6 issues can feed into that much longer story. But if all we get to do are these 5 or 6 issues, let's make sure that these are the best damn 5 or 6 issues that we can craft, as a team.

 

I have very strong and positive feelings about the character of Naomi and the supporting characters in her world. So I would love to see her last and continue, become a legacy character within DC. Where years down the line at conventions we have people say "I really related to this". Just the way I said that to other creators. The key thing is, you as a creator don't really have any say what does or doesn't resonate with people. You give it your all and you keep your fingers crossed, but you just never know.

 

It's funny, the two books that I've written that seem to have taken on a life of their own, are both NIGHTHAWK and OCCUPY AVENGERS. NIGHTHAWK more than anything, I think back to my self at the time, the sales weren't really that good.  But when I think back at conventions, that's the book that people talk to me about more than anything else. So again, at the time, I never thought that was gonna be it. I had a young fan at a convention that opened up about how this book saved his life and I thought, "Wow, this is a book that caused me a lot of heartache". Even though POWER MAN AND IRON FIST was my first regular title at Marvel, NIGHTHAWK had been started almost 6 months before. But then POWER MAN AND IRON FIST came up so they backburned NIGHTHAWK. I was still working on it but they said POWER MAN AND IRON FIST needed to come out first. So there was even more development time on NIGHTHAWK.

 

It's one of those things, that in all reality, it was my first Marvel book, even though it wasn't my first one that debuted. It was o heartbreaking when it got cancelled, because it got cancelled before the first issue even shipped. Now, when people walk up and tell me how much they love it, they walk up with they're TPBs or single issues, it's shocking to me. I thought this was going to be the footnote in my bibliography or my author's credits. But we don't have any control over what resonates with people and what doesn't, what lives on and what doesn't.

 

That's sort of what makes creating comics such an exciting proposition, but it can also be terrifying. You know, I want BITTER ROOT to have a long life, maybe it will or maybe it won't. Talk to me again in 2 or 3 years.

 

 

COMIC LOUNGE: Are there any other books you're working on that you can talk about or tease?

 

WALKER: Yeah, in January from Ten Speed Press, which is a division of Penguin Random House, I have an OGN coming out called THE LIFE OF FREDERICK DOUGLAS, which is a non-fiction book. That's a project, that I finished writing it a year and a half ago and spent nearly a year writing it. So it's been in development for about two and a half years, that was a tremendous undertaking.

 

I have a couple of creator owned things that in the process of being drawn right now, but they don't have publishers attached yet. One of them, I'll definitely be self-publishing. I came from a background of self-publishing, back in the 90's and early 00's, and I would like to get back into that.

 

There's a book called THE HATED, which is an OGN, it's the first in a series of 5 OGN's. I'm hoping to launch the Kickstarter for that in February. A guy named Sean Hill is the artist on that and it's coming along really well.Then I have another book with Brett Weldele, he was the artist on THE SURROGATES which Robert Venditti wrote. Him and I have a book that we're developing and trying to figure out what to do with it, in terms of publishing. Looking at the market, there's a lot to be said for self-publishing or being selective in who you go with in terms of publishers.

 

COMIC LOUNGE: So I have one last question for you. What advice would you give to somebody that wants to write professionally?

 

WALKER: The first thing is, just start writing. You start writing and you don't wait for someone to offer you a deal or to publish you or to give you money, you write and you write and you write. Self publish in some capacity, whether it's a blog or a comic. Whatever it is you're doing, if this is something that you want to do, you have to do it. You have to work on it diligently and you have to realize, that not everyone gets rich doing it. Some people have written multiple books, volumes of books, and not made much money. But they do it because they're compelled to. If money is your driving motivator, then I would say you're in for some disappointments. But you do it and don't give up.

 

I was talking to a friend of mine the other day, she's 26 or 27, and really frustrated because she feels like her career isn't going anywhere. I told her "When I was your age, I had nothing going for me compare to what you have going for you". When you're 26 and 27 that's still pretty young. It doesn't feel like it when you're that age but then you hit 45 or 50 and you can look back and realize how young 26 is. Without patience, without those years under your belt to look back in hindsight, a lot of people give up. They feel like " Oh I'm getting ready to turn 30, I should have made it by now". It doesn't always work that way though. Sometimes you don't make it until your 40 or 50.

 

I had a whole career in journalism before I seriously broke in to comics. I didn't seriously break into comics until my forties. But I spent my entire thirties and part of my twenties, in a pretty solid journalism career. I spent my early twenties writing stuff that never saw the light of day as I worked various jobs, in warehouse, retail and stuff like that. But I never gave up. I had that youthful energy back then, loading boxes in warehouses by day and coming home and writing at night.

 

I was just to stubborn, or to naïve, to ever really give up. One day I was looking back and was like "Oh now I'm a professional writer and getting a paycheck to do this". The key thing is, as frustrated as I got, and I had times where I felt like "I paid my dues and I should have caught a break by now", but I never quit when those breaks never came. What I did was just create opportunities for myself.

 

Someone just sent me a proposal, that they were gonna submit to Image for a series. The comic was done and I was like " Well, your submitting this to Image but there's nothing stopping you from publishing this yourself". My first novel was self-published. It wasn't because I didn't try to find a publisher, there just wasn't that level of interest. So rather than going "Ok, I wrote this book but nobody wants to publish it so, I'm just gonna forget about it and cry over my coffee." I was like " Well, what would happen if it I publish it myself?". So I did and it was well received and led to other work.

 

You just have to do it, you have to write. It's the same with music and drawing, if this is what you want to do, you have to do it. If you're waiting for a paycheck, than honestly there's no point in doing it. I know more people who haven't gotten to where they wanted to be in their careers, artistically, because they felt that they deserved to get paid way before they had earned the right to get "paid". I've had friends that have had really great book ideas, but they say they'll write it if someone pays them to write it. My first novel, I wrote it because I HAD to write it. It took me about 4 years to write the thing and it was not easy. Honestly, if someone had given me money to write that book, I probably would have self-destructed I probably would have become one of those horrific "substance abuse writers" who just falls apart at the seams. Instead I was writing because I had to, I had to because it was inside of me and needed to get out.

 

 

 

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