Interview by Max Delgado
It’s hard to believe, but there was a time when Dan Jurgens didn’t know anything about comic books.
But he did know about Batman -- he’d gained an appreciation for the caped crusader thanks to one of comics’ earliest and most enduring memes: the ‘60s television series starring Adam West.
Like most kids, Jurgens loved the show back in the summer of ‘67. It was hard not to. The explosive camp, dramatic acting, and saccharine colors were designed to delight kids just like him. And it worked. But like many young fans, Jurgens didn’t know the show was actually tethered to an original text.
But that was about to change.
A bit of background: Dan Jurgens grew up in Ortonville, Minnesota, a small town tucked near the border of South Dakota with a population of nearly 2000. Picture Jurgens as kid: it’s the mid-’60s and he’s walking through his small town neighborhood at night. It’s about 20 years before the start of his iconic run on Superman. It’s summer time. And by chance, he comes across a group of friends crowding the front steps of a house. Approaching, he finds that they’re orbiting around a pile of comic books.
“They were reading, swapping and trading,” Jurgens says, “and they had Batman comics, which was a huge revelation.” The revelation came in two parts: the first was simply discovering that the campy characters on television had originated in a pulp form first, and the television show was just an extension, not a creation of a mythic hero; the second revelation was that these heroes had been around for awhile.
“A couple of the guys had older brothers,” Jurgens shares. “That means they had comics that were seven or eight years old, which is how I immediately became aware of the idea that comics weren't just something of that specific moment, but something that had a previous history.”
Looking back, Jurgens’ early appreciation for characters with a previous history is notable, especially when considering the major impact he’s had on the continuity of some of comics’ biggest characters: Captain America, Spider-Man, Thor and Firestorm. And of course, Superman. Jurgen’s 10 year run with Superman, where he penned and illustrated the Last Son of Krypton through a wedding, death, and a resurrection, has had a lasting impact on the title -- and done much to shape The Man of Steel we know today.
But back to Ortonville, Minnesota, and to that porch where Jurgens first shuffled through a stack of comics with his friends. There was no way, of course, for any of those kids to know that one of them would grow up to be one of the industry’s most influential writers and illustrators. They just wanted good comics. And that’s exactly what Dan Jurgens would give them 20 years later.
LBP: I’d love to hear about what comics you read when you were growing up, specifically any titles that you felt passionate about. Looking back, do you think these titles had any impact on you as a storyteller?
I started with Superman and Batman and branched out to the rest of the DC characters from there. A couple of years later I got more interested in the Marvel characters.
But, as a young reader, it was Batman, Superman, the Justice League, Legion of Super-Heroes, Fantastic Four and Spider-Man that captivated me.
As for having an impact on me as a storyteller, I firmly believe that anything you read, be it fiction or the daily newspaper, helps form that. In some cases, it develops an interest in an area you might want to explore. In others, you might read something that doesn't work and that becomes a red flag-- something you avoid.
LBP: Although you initially broke into comic as an artist, you made the leap to writer almost immediately -- and have now gained praise for your work in both disciplines. As a graduate of MCAD your training as an artist seems a bit more documented, but I’d love to hear about your journey as a writer.
I went through a phase during my middle school years where I was a voracious reader. I read everything I could get my hands on. A couple of paperback companies were re-releasing old pulps like the Shadow and Doc Savage and I devoured those. That's when I began reading more adult books-- I remember trying to understand "Catch 22". It was also my first real exposure to science fiction, which was experiencing something of a resurgence. So, really, it was about exposure to lots of different ideas, techniques and opinions, which I continued to explore up through high school and college. All that stuff was planting seeds that would bear fruit later.
LBP: Booster Gold was one of the first characters I encountered who seemed aware of his own commercial value; he often played with the tension between good deeds and good publicity -- a set of conflicting motives that’s made him one of the most human characters in the DCU. How did you come up with the idea of Booster? Has his impact surprised you in any way?
I remember watching the Olympics in the early 80's, back when athletes were still expected to be amateurs. There was a swimmer or diver who had arranged an endorsement deal without yet winning a medal, which was somewhat shocking for the times. That started the process rolling in my mind and, eventually, Booster Gold was the result.
In many ways, he's even more relevant today, in a world of empty celebrity culture and TMZ.
And, yeah, it's a bit of a surprise to have something endure for what is now close to 30 years. When you're a young creator, you're simply incapable of thinking, or even dreaming, that far ahead. But it's quite gratifying.
LBP: Much has been written about your long career with Superman, and the major impact you had on shaping this flagship character. I’d love to hear which writers and artists helped shaped your understanding of the Man of Steel, and how their work might have informed your own work with the character.
This is a bit hard to explain, but as a kid and reader, I liked the character of Superman better than I liked the stories. For me, there were too many "out there" stories with Superman. He really was set up on such a high pedestal that he became hard to relate to. At the same time, the main artist of that era, Curt Swan, drew a very human Superman. So I was always a bit perplexed by what I was seeing, which was a god-like character with virtually no flaws whatsoever, who seemed very human in appearance.
So, to a certain extent, my approach as a writer was shaped by what I wasn't seeing as a reader. I craved a Superman that was a bit more human in terms of how he lived and a bit more powerful and raw when he wore a cape. I saw him as the ultimate leader, whereas before that, he always seemed to be looking for consensus. If you read the earliest stories of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, that's the Superman they depicted.
LBP: You’ve helped reshape or propel a ton of major characters over the course of your career, both at Marvel and DC (Superman, Spider-Man, Thor, Firestorm). Setting aside those big names for a moment, who’ve been some of your favorite supporting characters to work on? Are there any minor characters whom you think deserve more attention?
There was a time when I was writing four books-- Superman, Aquaman, Tomb Raider and Thor-- and my favorite of the four was Aquaman. I had great fun with that. Lots of stuff to play with there, even though the character has been the object of ridicule, from time to time. It's great to see him get the level of success he's currently enjoying.
Lois Lane is a tremendous character in her own right. I'd love to see her carry her own series again. Jimmy Olsen was fun to write as well. As were the Warrior's Three in Thor, where Volstagg can add such a great comic element.
Superman #189, illustrated by Curt Swan, written by Otto Binder
The very first comic I ever bought. I bought it because I found cover to be incredibly intriguing. Out of all the comics on the stands, I this one begged to be read. How could Superman's own dog turn on him?!-- The very first comic I ever bought. I b
Green Lantern #76, illustrated by Neal Adams, written by Dennis O'Neil
I bought this out of the spinner rack, took it home and must have read it five times that day. It was such a radical departure and major step forward that it was absolutely a shock to the system. I was captivated by it kept trying to understand what made it different and why it worked. Probably my first attempt and deconstructing a story.
Detective Comics #443, illustrated by Archie Goodwin, written by Walt Simonson
The brilliant end to the equally brilliant Manhunter storyline. The perfect conclusion that often eludes writers because there is no such thing as permanent in the world of comics.