It’s a dilemma faced every day by classic monster mags and many other legacy brands: how do you reinvent classic properties, horror or otherwise, for a new audience? How do you re-interpret retro content that may seem goofy or passé by today’s standards? Writer David Avallone is no stranger to the challenge: after a career in film, he jumped into the comic book world writing steampunk Vampirella, followed by stories featuring the Shadow, the Twilight Zone, Doc Savage, and even Bettie Page (as a spy, no less). His newest task is to send Cassandra Peterson’s sexy Elvira through time to talk to the horror greats in ELVIRA: MISTRESS OF THE DARK. Many of his titles have retained the kind of “pulp” edge you’d find in magazines like Amazing Stories or Detective Tales, but as he reveals in our interview, even classic pulp brands can benefit from a modern sensibility.
Famous Monsters. You got started in comics writing LEGENDERRY: VAMPIRELLA at Dynamite, then you did some DOC SAVAGE, you’ve been writing BETTIE PAGE… you’ve sort of become “the retro guy”. Is that something you envisioned happening when you first started writing comics?
David Avallone. That’s a yes and no answer. The first editor I ever worked with is the executive editor of Dynamite, Joseph Rybandt. Lovely guy. When we met through friends at San Diego Comic-Con, and we talked a lot about the fact that my dad was a pulp writer in the 50s. So I grew up reading pulp magazines from the 30s, in a house with 50 or 60 Doc Savage books. I think that was part of the attraction for Joe in hiring me to do Vampirella, then the Shadow and Doc Savage. I think he knew he was hiring someone who didn’t have to go feverishly read Doc Savage’s Wikipedia page. The funniest thing about coming to comics at this age is that I spent 40 years stuffing my head with all this nerd stuff and now it’s my job.
FM. Funny how that works.
DA. I mean, I did this crossover between The Shadow and THE TWILIGHT ZONE, a very odd assignment that I think turned out very well, and it was like, thank god I stayed up and watched every Twilight Zone episode when I was a kid! Thank god that I read the Shadow pulp magazines! I don’t slavishly recreate them, but like anyone adapting material that’s that old, you find what works.
FM. Did you consume all the media you write for as a kid, or are some of the properties completely new to you? Have you ever had to go and read a Wikipedia?
DA. I will fully admit when I tackled Doc Savage… he has five assistants, and three out of the five are different varieties of white dude scientists. I had to work really hard to go no, even though these guys clump together into a mass of white dudes, I’m going to do my damndest to make them different. In some of those old novels, everybody just says their catch phrase. But there’s also fun to be had by making the audience wait for catch phrases. The image of Doc Savage that is the most famous one is the the ripped safari shirt. In my Doc Savage series, his shirt doesn’t get ripped until about four pages before the end of the comic, and in the first three issues I would write, “Well, here we are at the end of Issue 2, Doc Savage’s shirt STILL INTACT!”
FM. That’s very cheeky. Were you a Vampirella fan, as well?
DA. I wasn’t a huge fan, but I absolutely read the Warren comic back in the day. The irony for me was that I hadn’t read anything since then. She’s been rebooted half a dozen times, and some very good writers whom I admire enormously gave her a new origin that I think is incredibly stupid. It’s a classic horror thing where she’s the daughter of the Devil, but what was always great about Vampirella was that she had no connection to vampire mythology or religion.
FM. She’s an alien vampire, yeah. [laughs]
DA. From planet f–king Draculon, where the rivers run red with blood! And I don’t even remember who it was, it was it was a really great writer…
FM. A bunch of incredible writers have written Vampirella. Everybody from Warren Ellis to Mark Millar.
DA. And I’m not maligning any of those guys! I just hate her new origin story. It makes her like every other character in every horror thing you’ve ever seen. So in LEGENDERRY: VAMPIRELLA, even though I didn’t come out and talk about Vampirella being from another planet, she owns a nightclub in that story, and I had the artist recreate a landscape panel of the planet Draculon from one of the old Warren comics and put it on the wall in the background.
FM. That’s one of the great things about the comic visual medium – you can just throw stuff into a panel, and people will pick up on it… or not.
DA. Absolutely. I like to think people of a certain age recognized that panel and went “Oh, that’s funny.” I had the obligatory scene where she is confronted by the Dynamite version of Van Helsing, who stabs her in the chest with a wooden stake, and she laughs and plucks it out of her chest. Bill [Willingham, creator of the LEGENDERRY universe] did a thing where he came up with a character name for her, Madame Pendragon, and that’s all she’s called throughout the series. So when Van Helsing has been hired by the bad guys to hunt her, he gives a little speech where he says, “We will kill this thing, this female of the species, this ‘Vampirella’ if you will…” [laughs] Somebody had to say Vampirella at some point.
FM. You got your start with Dynamite, and you’re still doing stuff with them, including the new ELVIRA series. What about Dynamite works for you?
DA. One of the best things about Dynamite is that I have enormous creative freedom there that I don’t think I would have with any other publisher. And they have a lot of my favorite characters! Their budgets are low, as you might imagine, and yet you see guys like Matt Wagner and Alex Ross working for them. And if that’s a head-scratcher for you, I always think well, if you always wanted to paint Doc Savage, you don’t have a lot of options. Here’s where you get to do it! [laughs] I always say, don’t tell Marvel and DC, but I would rather write the Shadow than Batman, and I would rather write Doc Savage than Captain America.
FM. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.
DA. With all due respect to their creators, of course. But when you write the Shadow, you’re not writing a carbon copy of a carbon copy. This is the thing that inspired those heroes! And honestly, I never really thought about it in context until I wrote Zorro, because Zorro is the truly original thing.
FM. Zorro is basically Batman.
DA. I mean, if someone offers me the SCARLET PIMPERNEL comic book, I may be forced to say well, factually, this is the first millionaire fop who dresses in a scary costume and fights crime at night. But unlike Zorro and the Shadow and Batman, the Scarlet Pimpernel hasn’t quite caught the imagination of the American public in the same way. [laughs]
FM. I can’t imagine why. [laughs] So with ZORRO: SWORDS OF HELL you’ve branched out from Dynamite to American Mythology Productions. Tell us how you’re turning Zorro into a horror story.
DA. I had not known when I started the series that the great South American novelist Isabel Allende wrote a Zorro novel. When I pitched my story, which involves the deposed alcalde, the major of Los Angeles that Zorro defeats in the origin story, making a deal with a warlock, or I should say brujo, to make the dead rise out of the La Brea Tar Pits and conquer LA for him, I thought well, what’s Zorro going to fight that with? It’s not THE WALKING DEAD; he’s not going to cut all their heads off. You’ve gotta come up with a challenge that you can’t stab your way out of. So in doing my research of 18th century Los Angeles, I decided he should get the way to defeat the villains from a Native American mystic. It turns out that Isabel Allende had made the same decision, and made Zorro’s grandmother be one. It’s great and it works perfectly and has a kind of emotional resonance. I mean, the La Brea tar pits thing, that’s because I live in Los Angeles. If you’re going to do a zombie thing in Los Angeles, how do you introduce them? Oh, there are these bubbling nightmare tar pits in the middle of the city!
FM. Makes for a great horror element. It sounds like you do a lot of historical research for these stories.
DA. I have this great book called THE TIMETABLES OF HISTORY, and it’s basically all of human history laid out and broken up into what I’ll call Trivial Pursuit categories. Politics, science, daily life, the arts… it’s great to look at when you’re dealing with anything historical because you go oh, that was happening at the same time as that! With Doc Savage, I started in 1933, just paging through and thinking, what would have attracted Doc Savage’s attention? What’s in the news? I found three different pitches before I decided on Amelia Earhart. You find all of these things that inform the world you’re writing about and make it more vivid. I mean, I can be overly obsessive. In the Bettie Page comic there’s a scene where she’s told something unbelievable, and I wrote that she responds “Do what now?” I’ve heard Southerners say that my whole life, and she’s a girl from Tennessee. But I went on Facebook and asked everyone with a Southern relative over 50 years old if they would have said “Do what now” in 1953. [laughs]
FM. Well, I’m sure you’ve done a lot of that with ELVIRA: MISTRESS OF THE DARK, given that it’s a time-travel book!
DA. I absolutely could have set it in 2018. Nobody said time travel — that was all me. And when I sat down to write it I was like, what was I thinking? Now I’ve got to research Mary Shelley and all these other people… Idiomatic expressions are really hard to research sometimes, but I try really hard. I just finished the second issue in which she meets Edgar Allen Poe, and I reread some Poe and went “Oh boy, this is going to be a lot of work.” Because the man does not say simple things simply. But that’s why it’s fun. That’s why you bring in Edgar Allen Poe, because it’s a chance to write over the top 19th century poetry in a comic book.
FM. Sort of along the same lines as Elvira, since you’ve also written Bettie Page and Vampirella, how do you tackle these tongue in cheek “sex symbols” in the 21st century?
DA. It’s tricky. It’s a thin line to walk. Luckily, my publisher and editor support me a hundred percent. When Joe and I talked about BETTIE PAGE, we both were like, we’re not interested in a cheesecake book where she’s in a bikini on every page. Now, knowing her popularity as a fetish model, at the end of the first issue I had her get tied up by the bad guys. But the bad guys would have tied up James Bond, too. It wasn’t gratuitous. I was raised by feminists; my mother was an abortion rights activist. I come from a place of respect, and my publishers are never giving me the notes, “Oh, you know what, she hasn’t taken her shirt off.”
DA. I loved writing Vampirella in a steampunk series because she was in a dress that went up to her neck. She’s dressed like a Victorian lady the entire time even when she’s ripping men’s heads off with her bare hands. It gives you the opportunity to say, is there more to this character than a swimsuit? If you can’t enjoy this because she’s not dressed like that, then it wasn’t really the character that you liked. Bettie Page in particular means so much to so many people, and there are two sides of the coin. I search Bettie Page on Instagram and see women and girls posting about how much they love the comic. That means the world to me. They’re the judge of whether I got her right or not. Writing in Bettie’s voice is very important to me. It’s the only review I need. The flip side is that in the first review of the first trade on Amazon, the guy hated how much it wasn’t sexy. He was like “I like the full page illustrations of her. Why wasn’t the whole book like that?”
FM. Like dude, you want a pinup book, you don’t want a comic book.
DA. Exactly. If your review of my book was “I couldn’t jerk off to it”, well, excellent. And since we’re at Dynamite, part of the challenge and attraction was to place this shameless, sexualized, feminist icon into the context of Doc Savage and the Shadow as another flavor of hero. I mean, no one asked to see the Shadow’s nipples. This was me trying my damndest to make it her story as she would tell it, and god bless her, she is that rare celebrity who made her money through exploitation of her beauty, and she never denied it or said she was ashamed. All of the spunk and bravey came from the woman herself. I don’t feel like I invented her at all.
FM. Well and speaking of inventions, Dynamite is famous for reviving old pulp properties like the Shadow and Doc Savage, and they’ve more reccently taking on horror franchises like PUMPKINHEAD and JEEPERS CREEPERS. What are the advantages and disadvantages to working with characters that are already there instead of making up your own?
DA. It’s a fascinating challenge. First of all, if you just count Doc Savage, you’ve got a hundred and something books already! It’s a lot of story. It’s all kinda been done, so what do you say about it that’s new? RING OF FIRE is my attempt at something that Lester Dent would have written in 1938, but the angle I gave it was a lesbian romance. It was a fantastic Rorscach test for readers because the Doc Savage fans… it flew right over their heads. I would read a review written by a woman under 30 and they accepted it without question. There was no middle ground, it was either, “Isn’t it nice that Pat Savage feels so strongly about her good buddy Amelia Earhart?” or “Pat Savage convinces Doc Savage to go after her missing girlfriend.” The challenge was to tell a 1938 story as 1938 as I possibly could and still not forget all of the people that existed in 1938 that people just didn’t write about.
FM. That is a very intelligent thing to say. Old worlds can take on new angles just by including broader concepts of character.
DA. There’s a lot of nonsense out there about “forced diversity”. There’s no such thing. There’s the world that really exists, and then there’s the white-washing that’s existed in mass culture for the past 80 years. That’s the thing that’s forced and fake, not having gay people in 1938. These people really exist! You’ve written them out of your mainstream culture, but if somebody makes a movie about people of all sizes and shapes or people who don’t look like movie stars, a reviewer sees it as a movie full of “freaks”. It’s like dude, ride the subway for an afternoon! That’s the real world. There’s a lot to be said for writing what couldn’t yet be written about. Of course, as a middle aged white guy, I have to tread very carefully and “stay in my lane”. I’m waiting for the review when somebody says, how dare you write all of these female characters? It’s my job. I’m doing what I can with it. In the case of Elvira, [Elvira actress] Cassandra Peterson is reading the scripts, and she loves them. She had a few alternate joke suggestions for the second issue. They were excellent, and I used them. So I’m just doing my best.
FM. I think you can feel her influence on the humor of the book. It’s very funny! Let’s finish up by talking about what property, horror or pulp or otherwise, you still want to get your hands on.
DA. It’s harder for me to think about that in the abstract, because if you’d asked me three years ago, I wouldn’t have said I’d love to get my hands on a Bettie Page comic, because who even knew a Bettie Page comic would be a thing? When they offered me the Elvira comic, I thought aw, didn’t I just do this? But you spend five minutes with it and go, I got it. Then ten minutes later you’re excited. All of that said, my dream project would be a pulp adventure using King Kong. My dad and I wrote something in the 80s called “The Morning After King Kong”, where all of the pulp heroes are hired by the government to figure out what the hell is going on on Skull Island.
FM. What a crossover that would be!
DA. There’s also a pulp character named G-8 who’s a fighter pilot in World War I, but for some reason in his world the German air force has dragons and dinosaurs. It was crazy science fiction sh-t about WWI. That’s a fun character. And the final thing: my dad wrote the same private eye character for thirty-five novels called Ed Noon. I would love to do an Ed Noon comic book. In the third stage of the series while my dad was dealing with illness and old age, his books got increasingly fantastical. He fights a witch in one book, and then the final three novels in the series he gets involved with an alien invasion. The science fiction thing is very much about getting old and losing touch with things and not knowing what’s real anymore. It’s like Philip K. Dick meets the Maltese Falcon.
DA. But whenever I say that I’d love to do this thing rather than this other thing… like, I never would have said Zorro because it never would have crossed my mind. When American Mythology said they had a pulp character I would love to write, I wasn’t sure if I had the time or the energy; but then they said Zorro and I was like well, I have to do that. There’s no universe in which I say no to Zorro. I mean, Star Wars and Star Trek are both licenses that I would love to take a crack at. But I’m sure the next thing that comes to me will be something I never imagined writing, and will absolutely turn into a giant thrill.