Eric Jerome Dickey interview

Eric Jerome Dickey is the New York Times best-selling author of such books as Genevieve, Drive Me Crazy, Naughty or Nice, and The Other Woman. This month he writes his first comic, Storm, relating the first encounter between Ororo and T'Challa, the Black Panther. Westfield's Roger Ash recently spoke with Dickey about this mini-series.

Westfield: How did you become involved with the Storm project?

Eric Jerome Dickey: Ruwan Jayatilleke at Marvel brought me in. I believe either him or one of the other employees were very familiar with my work. I know Ruwan was. It kinda came out of nowhere. My agent knows that I'm big on comics. I've always been big on comics. Even when I've done a lot of the book signings I've done over the last years, people always ask what I read. It's always a combination of novels, and I say, "But, I really read a lot of comics." [laughter] Which is really strange because you're standing in front of people who are referencing Hemmingway and Updike. I'm saying "I read a lot of Ultimate Spider-Man. Are ya hip on the Death of Superman?" [laughter] A lot of the things I've done novel-wise have been a reflection of my growing up with comics. Buying the comics at the drugstore. I always consider whenever I've created a novel, I created a universe - like we do in comics. As I did subsequent novels, I started bringing in characters from other novels to make guest appearances sort of like the Fantastic Four showing up in Spider-Man. Which, for a lot of the readers, that was totally new to them and I thought everybody new about that.

Westfield: What comics do you enjoy?

Dickey: Aw man. You want to go all the way back to the beginning of time? [laughter] Now I'm really enjoying the Ultimates and The House of M. What I love about this universe is you can play what if with your what if. You don't necessarily get that opportunity in the world of novels because once you've created it, that's it. People don't seem to understand that I'm taking this and I'm modifying it. I'm playing what if with my what if. We do. We understand the main universe and we understand the Ultimate Universe. I've always been a Spidey fan, from way, way, way back. I remember when Morbius was introduced; when Spidey had six arms. I used to be a huge Jim Starlin Captain Marvel fan. I would always dig on Neal Adams and what he did with Batman, Green Arrow and Green Lantern. How he took the comic world and brought in social issues which to me was like "Wow!" It was more than comics. You could do a lot more than basically tell about the Batman trying to catch the Riddler. You incorporate part of this world into that world, which I think makes it more real for a lot of the readers. Incorporating politics goes way, way back. Look at the comics that came out during, pretty much pick a war. [laughter] It was a reflection of who we in America thought was evil. They were the bad guys. You look at a lot of these now a lot of people would be totally offended such as the Asian characters with the big, round faces, big teeth, and the coke bottle glasses up to different versions of Hitler. Even now you see a reflection post-9/11 of the impact that had on some of the storytelling.

Westfield: From what I've seen, it sounds like the Storm series is touching on some real world issues as well.

Dickey: I was talking with Axel Alonso and Ruwan and trying to acknowledge the universe, what's been established, and I'm listening creatively. I'm trying to figure where can I fit it? Where would this story begin? For me it goes back to just reading international news, what's going on in Africa, in those parts of Africa and researching that area of which I knew of, but I hadn't read about in detail or hadn't had to stop and imagine the day to dayness of that world. Imagining for me, the first thing is that what if? What would it actually be like for Ororo to be orphaned in this world and what is it all about? A lot of people have depicted her as a frustrated thief. She grew up a thief. To me, there was more to it than that. She was doing what she had to do to survive. I read this one interesting article where they would send the women out to do things like gather food because the enemy was out. This is in a recent paper. Because if the enemy attacked the women, the worst thing that would happen to them was that they'd be raped. The men would be killed. But just the fact that they said "the worst thing that would happen is that you'll be raped." To imagine Storm growing up in a place where you're trying to survive on your wits but at the same time, you're a kid. You don't have parents. You don't have a reliable father figure. You don't have anyone to protect you and you're doing what you have to do to survive. At the same time, not be raped because if she was amongst the street urchins, in my mind, a lot of those girls have probably had horrible, horrific experiences. I'm trying to bring all of this into the character in a few pages.

I couldn't image her being orphaned and never reflecting on that. Never wanting family. Never wanting love. Never crying. I had read some of the stuff they sent, and they said Storm has never cried in her life. That struck me. Not even in private? You witness your mother and father killed. You went from being a middle class person to basically nothing in the blink of an eye. You went from having a mother and a father to being an orphan in the blink of an eye and the way it happened, you literally went from laughing and playing with your mom and dad to having to be taken away from the dead bodies. How do you not cry? [laughter] That's just me sitting here thinking, thinking of her as a real person. When I thought about it, I thought of her not as a superhero, I thought of her as a woman who happened to have these extraordinary abilities that she really didn't understand. The way they manifest in a sense could be very puzzling to her. If when you cry it rains, if you're a spiritual person, maybe you link that to the gods. If when you're upset the skies darken and thunder strikes, maybe you link that to the gods. If you steal something and they're chasing you and there's fear and the skies darken, maybe the gods are telling you that you're doing something bad. You don't necessarily recognize what's going on.

Westfield: What can you tell us about what goes on in the story?

Dickey: Ruwan and Axel sent me great stuff and I noticed a couple spots where it had a villain pop up for a page and then Chris Claremont did some work with him where Storm and the Black Panther were in sort of a Marvel Team-Up type situation. I found him fascinating, so I brought him into the story for a couple of reasons. One, so it kind of links to what's already been established, but giving him a larger part in the story, a larger part in the madness. The people who are after them, they're after wealth and power. You have both Ororo and T'Challa being pursued. The power being Ororo's abilities and the wealth coming from the nation of Wakanda.

Westfield: What was it like working with the Black Panther?

Dickey: I have to tell you this, it was fun, but working with him as a 16-year-old kid. [laughter] It was fun. Imagine him as 16-year-old kid who comes from this nation where basically they run the show. Now he's out on a walkabout. What is his view of the world once he gets out and runs into a bunch of kids who steal for a living? What is his take on that? Does he understand? A lot of it is putting him in a position where he and Ororo can learn from each other and see something in each other. Other than them both being from Africa. [laughter] That's easy because what's going on between them to me is deeper than "I'm from Africa, you're from Africa. I'm Black, you're African-American." I say that with Ororo because I believe she was born in the States. I just saw an article where some of the fans lashed out where in the press they announced Ororo and T'Challa as African-American characters. Just trying to work that relationship in a way that's believable, touching. A lot of the stuff that's going on between them now, you'll understand what triggers that. Ororo's jealousy or why she keeps away from him. In the Marvel Universe I just read an issue where Storm made a comment where she's avoided Africa because of T'Challa. That's some deep love. Love will make you leave a state, but when it makes you leave a continent, because this continent's not big enough for both of us& [laughter] Setting up the depth of that love, those emotions, that bond, so that when you read a later issue and you see it you say, "Oh yeah. I know exactly where that's coming from. I know what triggered that." It was mentioned that Ororo met T'Challa in Africa when he was on his walkabout, and this is giving some of the detail of it. Some of their adventure, what went on. It's how they met and at the same time it's more details on the origin of Ororo. But the book is not just about Ororo's origin, it's a little bit more about her.

Westfield: From what you've said, I can tell this is quite a bit about relationships. Your novels are very big on relationships as well but tend to be very volatile and lustful. Was it difficult reigning that in?

Dickey: No, not at all. You adapt to what you're working on especially since I grew up on comics. When I was a teenager, probably like every teenager back then, I decided I wanted to draw comic books. Then I realized, "Oh, I can't draw." [laughter] "Who buys stickmen? It's a stickman with a cape." But I could write the stories. I have another buddy, we were like 12 or 13, and we called our little comic book company B.E.A.M, Bennett, Eric, Andre and Milum. [laughter] I don't know exactly what we did, but there was no Kinkos then, we would make one issue and just have to pass it around. I was probably more comfortable, had more fun writing the comic than the 12 novels I've written. There's so much more you can do in that world. People can fly. Somebody can get thrown through a tree and the tree shatters and everybody gets up and walks away. We suspend disbelief. We believe. It was a lot of fun. The relationship stuff is there, but there's a lot of drama, conflict between Ororo and T'Challa and their antagonist. It's a full-fledged story. It doesn't go Harlequin. [laughter] It's nothing light and fluffy and pretty. Storm is drawn perfectly, just the way I imagined her, as a teenager who has nothing who hangs out with street urchins which are basically a gang. And they steal to eat. They steal to make a living. And they run back to wherever the gang congregates and look over the stuff they stole and they celebrate and they party because this is the only love they know. None of them have parents, none of them have anything, none of them have guidance. None of them have money, but every morning, even if you have missed-meal cramps, you have to figure out "How am I gonna eat today?" That's where she was. Image that and where she is now, it's even more remarkable that she made it. Basically, a lot of kids don't survive even up to the point of where her mutant powers started when she was going through puberty. A lot of people don't even survive up to that age. When I sat back and thought about it, it was a miracle within itself that she survived from age 6 when her parents died out on her own, up to be a teenager and nothing super horrific had happened to her as far as her trying to survive. I touch on a lot of that. I don't dwell on it, I touch on it. [laughter] I acknowledge it, I move on.

Westfield: You mentioned the art before. Are you pleased with what you've seen?

Dickey: I love what I've seen. It's never what you imagine as you're working on it, because everyone sees a different picture looking at the same words. But what I see is so amazing. There are some pages I looked at and I was like, "Damn. I wrote the words for that? Damn!" It is just so amazing to see the texture of it. The cover of the first issue tells a story and I've seen the covers of the first 4 issues and they're just so on point. I'm like "Wow!" It blows me away that I had anything to do with that.

Westfield: How was this different than working on a novel?

Dickey: This had rules. Rules that I didn't make up. Working on a novel, it's Dickey Universe and this is stepping into Marvel's Universe and Ruwan and Axel sent me a lot of literature on the Black Panther, on Storm, and I sat up reading trying to understand these characters, then I realized I understand them as an adult, who they are now, and what I had to write had to be a wonderful bridge to that. I couldn't write this 6-issue mini-series and it's just out of place. Like this doesn't jibe with what we know. They had to go back and check things that I wanted to do creatively, so far as Storm's background, they had to check with continuity to see if that was possible. Everybody was so wonderful to work with. I had no idea how it would be. I didn't know if it would be "No you have to do it exactly this way. This is what we want." And it ended up being "Hey! We like what you're doing. Just keep doing what you're doing and if it goes too far to the left or to the right, we'll let you know." I did do some parts that went too far to the right or too far to the left and I got pulled back in, but it was nothing major. It was like "you can't do that because, dah dah, dah dah dah, so how about this?"

Westfield: Do you have any desire to do more comics in the future?

Dickey: I would love that. After doing novels for ten years, short stories, and rewrites on plays, it was wonderful. I would definitely say that when I sat down to do this, it seemed like all the other stuff I had done before was like training so when I sat down to have to tell a story in 24 pages, it felt like I had the tools. Being a novelist who writes long chapters, I had to fit everything into 24 pages. If anything was limiting, that was it. But Axel was a wonderful editor. I would send him some stuff, it would be a few pages too long, we'd talk about it, he'd cut it up, send it back, and I didn't even miss those few pages. [laughter] That's what an editor does. An editor cuts out the stuff that no one's gonna miss.

Westfield: Any closing comments?

Dickey: Make mine Marvel!