There’s something hysterically subversive happening over at Nickelodeon Magazine, even as I type this. The lunatic running the publication’s comics asylum is letting artists like Johnny Ryan, Ivan Brunetti, and Kaz run amok within the pages of one of this country’s premier kids’ magazines.
Said lunatic’s name is Chris Duffy, and he’s been pushing some of the nation’s foremost alternative cartoonists upon impressionable young minds for a decade now. Duffy’s comics pedigree also includes a stint as an associate editor at DC Comics, and part-time cartooning ambitions of his own.
We sat down with Duffy to discuss Harvard undergrad theses on Batman, what it’s like to be an underling at DC, and of course, what the heck is going on over at Nickelodeon Magazine.
You’re something of a cartoonist, in your own right.
Yeah, I’ve always drawn comics. Out of college, after a year of not really finding a job in Boston, I thought maybe I’d move to New York and get a job as a hotshot young cartoonist. I tried, sort of, but was really clueless. I continued drawing, for fun, and now, because of the Internet, I can show people my stuff easily.
What do you think prohibited your making a career of it?
[Laughs] Well, let’s see—I couldn’t draw. I spent college doing liberal arts stuff, trying to push comics to the back of my head. I went to Harvard and studied the history of American literature—which isn’t as snooty as it sounds. It’s probably one of the hipper—for lack of a better word—academic departments. You could decide what in American culture you wanted to study, but you had to take a broad spectrum of courses in different departments. I ended up doing my thesis on reader responses and criticism in Batman comics—which isn’t a topic I wanted to do, but my thesis adviser convinced me that it was the only thing I’d understand [laughs], because I wanted to do something with comics, and thought it would at least be interesting. He read a lot of comics, so we sort of hashed out that topic, together.
Meanwhile, I was drawing lots in college and my roommates saw it, and were always like, “stop drawing in ballpoint pen, on colored paper that doesn’t photocopy, and do something real.” So, I ended up doing a few little things here and there, but didn’t really take it seriously, until after college. But I couldn’t stop reading comics—I tried, because I really wanted to be a writer. I was one of those kids who wanted to be a writer, because I wrote a Doc Savage book, in third grade [laughs]. I don’t really know why it didn’t pan out, though I think DC Comics is partly to blame, because I wanted to have a job in comics. I never found one, but I kept interviewing, and I’d have these day jobs that were all right, but that I wasn’t really interested in. That allowed me a little bit of time to attempt to do stuff in comics.
But when I got the job at DC, it really took up a lot of energy. It was a real packhorse kind of a job, so I stopped doing it for a while. And then the job I got after that was at Nickelodeon Mag, which was similar, in terms of the energy that I was putting into it. After being at that job for eight years, I started getting a bit more serious about my own stuff.
What does being an associate editor at DC Comics entail?
Associate is just an assistant, with fewer responsibilities. It kind of depends who you’re working for. I worked for two editors: Mike Carlin and Frank Pittarese. They were doing Superman and the Superman spinoff books, which amounted to six titles, and extra little things, here and there. From day to day, you call a lot of people, to let them know about deadlines, or buzz them, to let them know their work came in, because it wasn’t sent digitally, so you actually had to call people, to let them know that you got the package. And I’d make sure that people got paid, and chasing down checks—putting out the little fires, not the big ones, which is what the editor was doing.
Mike Carlin would handle every possible important detail, and leave all of the little details to other people, so there was a lot of running back and forth to production, and making sure that they had redrawn Green Lantern’s arm, because he’s supposed to have a cast in this annual, because he had his arm broken in the other annual. Stuff like that. It’s just like any kind of publishing job, but there was more running around, because of the basically weekly schedule.
Do you have to become something of an encyclopedia, for DC history, in order to catch all of these details?
Well, I had that in me, in some strange way. I was still a comic book geek. I didn’t know DC as well as Marvel—well, I read a lot of DC in college.
You obviously read a lot of Batman.
Yeah—didn’t really even like Batman too much, which is kind of unfortunate, because I chose that as a thesis topic, but I had one or two good sentences in there. It actually makes it a lot more interesting, to really get to know the characters. Like, I didn’t really know the New Gods, until I got to DC. It can actually make the job more interesting, because if the job is mind-numbingly boring, you can say, “well, I hope that next time they do this cool character.” Some people who worked there were kind of disdainful of continuity, which I completely understand. But just knowing the broadstrokes was important to the job. I didn’t mind that so much, but I tried not to get too obsessed with it. I had one of those DC Who’s Who books in the binders, with the three-hole punch. I had hopes of maybe scripting something while I was there. I looked through it, in hopes of getting ideas.
It’s not so bad, compared to other jobs I had. Part of the job would be to look up the Furies. So there are little nuggets in the job, that I didn’t have in my other jobs. It was a good job, in terms of getting used to a lot of work coming in, and evaluating it quickly.
Mike Carlin knows a lot about art, and had a lot of thoughts about a character like Superman—someone I didn’t really have any affinity for. He sort of got me interested, because he had a real point of view about what you should and shouldn’t do with the character. And it made sense. He’s the editor who kind of killed Superman, which is funny, because it was one of the biggest cynical stunts, but in a way, his heart was really in it. He wanted to play and tease it out, in a way that really played with the character, and where he’s been. I came in just after Superman came back, and that’s kind of when it all went to hell. He had long hair and everyone hated him. And then sales sort of started to go down—not because of Superman, but the hole the company sort of dug themselves into.
Did you ever have the chance to pitch them something?
Yeah. I had a tiny little, utterly negligible comic published in something called Batman Chronicles, which is an anthology that was kind of short-run, and printed a little bit after I left DC. I pitched a few series, and people read them, which is nice. Nothing got through. I was just an assistant editor, as the market was crashing, so they weren’t exactly looking for it. But it was good, I think, when the market crashed for DC, because they stopped giving assistant editors the cherry assignments.
[Continued in Part Two.]