Talking Spider-Man–in the ’90s–with writer Howard Mackie at FAN EXPO Boston 2018.
If you were a Marvel fan in the ’90s, there’s a good chance you read a comic written by Howard Mackie. Although Mackie began his comics career as an assistant editor to the late Mark Gruenwald, he went on to write such titles as Ghost Rider (where he co-created Danny Ketch), X-Factor, Mutant X and many, many Spider-Man comics during one of the most infamous points in the hero’s history.
At FAN EXPO Boston 2018, AiPT! had a chance to sit down with the writer to discuss his time scripting everybody’s favorite friendly neighborhood wall-crawler, as well as his current projects.AiPT!: So, what was it like writing Spider-Man in the ’90s? It seems like an experience that can be a great honor but also hugely frustrating due to editorial interference.
Howard Mackie: Oh wait, what are you saying? With great power comes great responsibility? [Laughs] Yeah, it was intimidating and it was fun because I grew up as a Spider-Man fan and it comes with a lot of pressure because, frequently, I was asked to use classic characters. I tended to lean away from that unless editorial said, “Oh, you need to do a story with the Vulture.” And I noticed a lot of my fellow writers both then and now are constantly trying to do their version of the best Vulture story, or the best Sandman story, or Sinister Six or whatever. Well, I already read those stories and they were written by Stan and drawn by Steve. So that’s why I tended to lean away from that. But yeah, especially when I was writing Spider-Man in the ’90s, it came with a lot of pressure because sales were going up–until they didn’t–and Spider-Man was a flagship title at Marvel. The guys I worked with–because we had four Spider-Man titles–I still count them as some of my best friends. But even working with your best friends can be really difficult when you’re trying to coordinate storylines like that. So it was fun, there was pressure but I don’t regret it.
AiPT!: Are there any stories you wanted to tell but didn’t get to?
Mackie: Oh I’m sure, but I’m too old to remember what they are, and what you learn when you’re a writer in comics–no story goes away. What I’m saying is if I come up with what I consider a really good Spider-Man story, that does not mean it will be a good Ghost Rider story or Mutant X or whatever. But there are elements that you could–as a writer, you never physically or mentally throw anything away. It all gets filed for something else.
AiPT!: In Amazing Spider-Man (Vol. 2) #13, the airplane Mary Jane is on explodes in midair, effectively writing Peter Parker’s wife out of the series for some time. I assume that was editorially mandated?
Mackie: That’s a good assumption. There were a lot of editorial mandates.
AiPT!: Was the airplane explosion your idea, or did you come up with that sort of stuff as a committee?
Mackie: I mean, yes, we came up with that angle because we literally wanted a back door out, and if you look at the artwork, there’s the back door of the airplane. It’s one of those things you come to realize. For instance, in the Clone Saga, when we pitched it, we knew what we wanted to try. I almost brought the notebook with me. It was planned for a three-month story arc, I have the original meeting notes and it was a victim of its own success. But we knew we had the back door plan on that. We’re going to try it. And everybody was concerned the readers would get pissed off–OK, good, that’s not a bad thing. And we know how we’re going to get out of it. And then what happened, well a lot of things happened–Marvel went through a lot of internal changes and primarily being a marketing-driven company rather than editorially driven or driven by the creators, we were getting to the end of the Clone Saga and the sales were doing well when everything else was tanking. So they said, “No, you can’t end that story.” Do you know how writing works? There’s a beginning, a middle, oh and look, there’s the end. But no, it was stretched. I can point to some stories in there that are my least favorite–I’m sure I will sign at least one of those covers this weekend. I may have brought some with me just to piss myself off, but there were some editorially driven things I just wasn’t a fan of.
AiPT!: I don’t know if you keep up with the current Amazing Spider-Man series, but Peter and Mary Jane are back together. Do you have any thoughts on that after you had to find a way to split them up?
Mackie: I’ll be honest with you, I have a personal philosophy edict where I never pick up a book that I’ve written and I’m done with. So I hadn’t read anything on Ghost Rider after I finished. Same thing with Spider-Man my friend Terry Kavanagh, who also wrote Spider-Man stuff, was constantly telling me stuff to read. “Oh, you should read this Dan Slott comic”–I’m know Dan is a great writer, but I just don’t read it. Now I did finally read the new Ghost Rider stuff because it’s a totally different character. He drives a car.
AiPT!: Yeah, Ghost Rider bought a car.
Mackie: Yeah, yeah, OK, that makes him a Ghost Driver not a Ghost Rider. I actually enjoyed it. I thought the writer did a very good job. I forget your original question.
AiPT!: Mary Jane.
Mackie: That’s ridiculous. I did not know that but it’s so frickin’ ridiculous because the whole point of the breakup was because Spider-Man works best when there’s that constant tension between his personal and Spider-Man life. By the time I came on, they were already married and Mary Jane became a supermodel. So they have this great apartment and those days of, “Oh, how am I going to make ends meet? Let me take some pictures of Spider-Man.” That was off the table and they were happily married. Oh and he had the job too. OK, so he can just be Spider-Man full time and it’s not going to impact his life at all and that was the point of the Clone Saga. It was to try to address some of those issues. What is the expression… those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it? Well there you go.
AiPT!: I’m not sure if you’re aware, but Bloodstorm from Mutant X is also back.
Mackie: Oh, I didn’t know.
AiPT!: Yeah, I don’t think it’s your Bloodstorm exactly, but it’s an alternate, vampire Storm named Bloodstorm and she’s in X-Men Blue by Cullen Bunn.
Mackie: Good, thank you. I’m compiling a list of characters I created for Marvel for specific reasons, so I will make sure that’s on my list.
AiPT!: How do you feel about that? That a character you created years ago is always available to play with in the Marvel sandbox.
Mackie: Oh yeah, I love that. I mean, you know that when you sign on. For all the criticism the Clone Saga got back in the day, and the sales did pretty well, especially in the beginning. Whatever happened to Ben Reilly and Scarlet Spider?
AiPT!: He’s got his own book now.
Mackie: Exactly. I’m hoping they make it to the screen as well, especially with Marvel Studios.
AiPT!: What do you make of the Marvel films?
Mackie: Oh, I love the Marvel movies, which is more than I can say for some other movies of other superhero-related comic books. The movies turn me into an 11-year-old boy. That’s where I get to become the fan I started as, and it helps that they’re so well done. I’m not sitting there saying, “Oh, they could have done that better,” because I love the studio mythos they’ve created. It’s fantastic. My biggest regrets when I go to see the movies is that my mentor Mark Gruenwald, who brought me into the business–he died a number of years ago. He loved loved those movies. So that’s the only twinge of regret that I have.
AiPT!: Final question: What are you working on right now?
Mackie: Well I actually have one project in the works that I really can’t talk about. But it might be for Marvel with a character that I have maybe written in the past. And then I’m doing some indie work. I’m doing some stuff for Zenescope right now because my friend Terry Kavanagh, a fellow writer and editor, he’s doing some editing work for them. So I just finished a Jasmine mini-series and I’m signed up to do a few other things. I’m actually having a lot of fun because of their editorial system and the freedom that they’re giving me. The page rate isn’t quite what I get when i work for the big two. But the freedom is more than worth it. It just means I’m spending less time having to rewrite stuff that upper echelon people decide needs changes. And I have several creator-owned projects in development.