Howard Mackie Interview - Toronto Comic Con 2018

by Hussein Wasiti on March 18, 2018

I had the pleasure of talking with Howard Mackie, writer of Ghost Rider and Spider-Man. Howard was incredibly nice and had a lot to say, so enjoy the interview! 


CTG: What did comics mean to you growing up and how exactly did you transition from loving them into wanting to make them?


Mackie: I started reading comics because I had three older sisters, all of whom much older than I am and they all got jobs. On their way home from work on payday they would pass, back in the old days we used to have spinner racks, and my sisters thought a good way to be nice to their baby brother was to pick up some comics. Secretly some of the earlier comics were ones they liked, like Archie and Ritchie Rich and old Harvey stuff, but then suddenly they snuck in Batman and Superman and then Spider-Man and that sucked me in. I was always a reader but not a fan as we know them today; I read comics. I just read them all for a long time and then in my mid-teens I discovered girls...


CTG: That is the common story, everybody discovers girls and falls off but then pick it back up again.


Mackie: Exactly! And I had gotten through a stage where I wanted to draw comics and I just stopped. Fast forward a number of years and I was working as a traffic manager for an exporting company. About as far from comic books or anything creative as you can imagine. My best friend at the time was a gentleman by the name of Mike Carlin who was working at Marvel as an assistant editor then later on went to be the Editor-in-Chief over at DC Comics after he got fired from Marvel [laughs]. He showed Marvel! He worked for a guy named Mark Gruenwald. Mike got promoted, he was tired of hearing me complain about my exporting job so he said, “why don’t you interview?” I interviewed and I got the job. I knew the continuity too because Mike had been working at Marvel for three years and was giving me current comics for free, so I got caught up. I started at Marvel in 1984 as an assistant editor, and eventually the way I became a writer was because Mark came up to me and told me that I had to write a comic to know what it would be like to be edited. And I did! The first comic I did was Iron Man #211, “The Return of the Living Laser”, and it’s horrible! Or it’s good-ish for the time.


CTG: What exactly did you learn from Mark that you applied to your work?


Mackie: I’m not sure if you know but Mark passed away a number of years ago. Mark was my first boss at Marvel, he was my mentor, and more importantly he was my friend. Mark decided early on when I started as his assistant that he was gonna start honing how to train somebody. Mike was his assistant first and Mike had no shortage of skills, so Mark tried to formulate how to teach somebody to edit and create comic books. He later on, at Marvel, went on to have an assistant editor’s school where they would pull all the assistants in and give them lessons once a week about comic books. I was sort of the test tube baby on that stuff. Back in the day at Marvel, me and Mark would always work overtime although we weren’t paid overtime but we’d spend late nights at the office and he’d impart as much wisdom to me as he could. As a matter of fact, I still utilise some things I learned from Mark about 34 years ago about how to pace a story, very basic things I fall back on. Some of it becomes ingrained, but there are times when you need to refresh your memories. As I was telling you earlier, I used to do martial arts. I had this instructor who taught us how to do break-falls, learning how to fall for an entire class and it was the most boring thing in the world! And as I also told you, a number of years later I fell 16 feet onto a driveway. The thing that saved my life was that I immediately went into a break-fall without thinking about it, and that was because of a pain in the butt teacher who had us do it in the class. And that’s the stuff I learned from Mark Gruenwald: sometimes, no matter how much you think you know, go back to basics and refamiliarise yourself with it all. Sometimes it’s basics of storytelling, basics of character development, what it means to have a hero. Some writers lose track of that.


CTG: I wish some current writers would follow Mark’s advice. You mentioned Spider-Man as an early character you read. How do you translate the love you have for a character into such a long-spanning story as the Clone Saga?


Mackie: [giggles] As I’ve said in other places, the Clone Saga was never supposed to be an epic. It was never supposed to be a saga! It was a clone story. I have the original notes on the clone story and it was mapped out as a three-month long story. We had four books, three months would be a year’s worth of stories. What happened is that it happened at a time when comics were going through a transition in terms of sales. The market was tanking, almost everything was dropping in sales. We started the Clone Saga and not only did the sales bottom out, but they started to rise a little bit. And what the people in charge of Marvel, I like to refer to them as “the geniuses”, decided that if it worked a little bit they we should do a lot more of it. And so this three-month storyline got stretched out to a point where it took on a life of its own. There were elements added to it that weren’t supposed to be there. We then thought, “how do we get ourselves out of this?” In terms of translating your love of a character... it’s just fun. It’s one of those things where I would sit down and finish writing a story and call up one of my fellow writers and say, “do you ever get amazed that we get paid to do what we do?” If you can approach a story with that kind of enthusiasm... you have to keep a little bit of the fan in you, but not too much, because there’s a fine balance otherwise you’re retelling old stories instead of telling new ones.


[At this point we take a break as Howard greets a few groups of fans. He signs a whole bunch of Ghost Rider comics]


CTG: As is known, you created the Danny Ketch version of Ghost Rider. What were your major inspirations for him in the first place?


Mackie: I didn’t want to create a new character since I wanted to write Johnny Blaze! He had such a cool name! But Marvel didn’t want to do that. To a certain extent I think they felt that version of Ghost Rider was damaged goods, as when the original series ended, the sales were not great. And so they asked me to come up with an all-new character, an all-new background, make it a younger guy. They say write what you know. I grew up in Brooklyn. I grew up in Cyprus Hills. I grew up going around cemeteries. Where Danny Ketch hangs out, I went back and shot photo reference for that. I got in trouble in those cemeteries, got dogs leashes on us, guys shooting shotguns filled with rock salt. Danny Ketch was oddly some idealised version of myself, I never rode a bike, but I always wanted to. One of my brothers-in-law was a biker and he turned me on to motorcycles. By the time I was writing Ghost Rider, I was married and my wife said oh no no [laughs]. You’re not getting a motorcycle! So Danny and the supporting cast where an amalgam of myself and people I grew up with in that very locale, in Cyprus Hills, Brooklyn.


CTG: There’s a clear difference between the characters not just because of the conception but because you put so much of yourself into him.


Mackie: What I liked about it was when I did get to bring Blaze in, because I knew as soon as I had the opportunity, Blaze was coming into the book. Because Danny was young I was able to bring Blaze in as the old, wizened character. He lost the ability to change into Ghost Rider but I gave him a shotgun that could shoot hellfire, which upped the badassery as far as I was concerned. I’m glad I couldn’t use Blaze at the beginning because taking him out of the mix meant I had to rethink everything about the character and the origin. If I used Blaze, I would have just continued the storyline and it would not have been as successful as it was.


CTG: What was one property at Marvel or DC that you wanted to do but couldn’t?


Mackie: A few years ago I got to do a Batman story, which was terrifying. I’ve written about 600 or 700 comic book stories, a bunch of them with Spider-Man. I’ve done the X-Men, I’ve done Ghost Rider, I’ve done the Avengers. Name the Marvel character and I did them. Then I got a phone call from MARK CHERELLO? who is an art director up at DC, but is absolutely one of the best editors they have and an under-utilised talent. And he said, “Hey Howard, you ever thought of doing a Batman story?” And I said nope! And he said, “would you like to?” And I said maybe! As much as Spider-Man, Batman is such an iconic character for me. I was a big fan of the Frank Miller stuff, as well as what Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo were doing.


CTG: Where do you think comics are now, both mainstream and indie, and where do you think they could improve?


Mackie: I will admit that I don’t read as many comics as I did in the past. I do find more interesting stuff, for me as an older reader now, in the indies. I prefer creator-owned stuff. I like what Howard Chaykin’s doing. One of my neighbours has a small imprint that he’s doing called Wave Blue World. They’re just doing interesting stuff because there are no constraints of corporate mentality. I’m not saying this as a negative thing but the Marvel and DC characters are corporate entities. They’re brands. And they’ve got to protect the brand. To speak truthfully, I think part of the problem is the "Hollywood-isation" of mainstream comics and I say that because I've flirted with Hollywood a few times and in Hollywood, everybody gets an opinion, up the chain of command. And because they all get an opinion, they feel the need to exercise that opinion, and have input. So my last couple of experiences, primarily at DC, were not great where, I'm talking about THE RAVAGERS, where I had to keep making changes over and over and over again to stories where the changes meant nothing. My opinion as an editor for the mainstream comics is that you should always ask two questions before you ask for a change. One is, how does this impact the story that I'm reading, and two, how is this gonna impact sales? And if it's not gonna do either of those things in a big way, don't ask for the change. That's not what's happening for the most part. I think it's a situation where there are too many people up the chain of command. I'm doing some indie work right now, working with a small publisher. My old friend and colleague, who actually was responsible for the Clone Saga, Terry Kavanagh and I are doing a bunch of work for Zenescope and they have an intriguing universe that's all based upon old myths and fairy tales. Terry's editing a bunch of stuff and writing some, and I'm doing some writing for them, and it's very free. Quite frankly, they don't pay as well, but I did the math, and based upon how much I had to rewrite stuff at DC versus what I'm doing at Zenescope, my page rate's about the same! I can do more books. So I think the future is with the indies or the creator-owned stuff. I have a number of creator-owned projects in the works with various artists because you're not answering to the corporate hierarchy of publishing.


CTG: You're your own boss, essentially.


Mackie: And that comes with downsides as well. I like a good editor and that's why Terry and I bounce story ideas off each other. We're the best and worst editors. When I say worst I mean we're the ones who can speak truth. We know we've both put in the time and have the experience so we trust what the other is saying.