John Ostrander is a long-time writer of comics from a wide variety of genres and publishers. At the independent publisher First Comics he and writer-artist Timothy Truman created the mercenary-assassin character Grimjack (pictured above) in the early 1980s, and at DC Comics the pair again collaborated to relaunch the character of Hawkman following Crisis on Infinite Earths. In addition to other work for both DC and Marvel, including The Spectre, Suicide Squad, and The Punisher, Ostrander has been a major contributor to Dark Horse Comics’ Star Wars titles since the early 2000s.
Black Ship Books: Hi, John! I struggle to come up with good first questions, but let’s try this one—Your career path has had its share of twist and turns. For a while you were a stage actor, and you even attended seminary for a year with the intention of entering the Catholic priesthood. To those two already very different vocations you decided to add that of comic book writer. What was it that led you to choose that career, and do you see any organic connections between those three occupations?
John Ostrander: Certainly my earlier choices have informed my later career as a writer. I learned things from both (to which we can add playwright and director) that helped me. I got a sense of dramatic structure from my work in the theater and a sense of how dialogue can reveal character and move the story along, It taught me how theme can be and perhaps should be wedded to the plot. Although I am no longer a practicing Catholic (I often term myself as a “Recovering Catholic”), I got a sense of ritual and a feeling for mystery. Not the detective story kind of mystery but of the unexplained and maybe inexplicable that I often like to explore and investigate in my work. As for choosing writing – I had always loved to read and I loved comics for a long, long time. When Mike Gold gave me an opportunity, I went for it. I really think that writer is my truest vocation. It’s where everything that I am and had learned and experienced, came into greatest focus.
BSB: What were your formative years as a reader of comics like? Are there any creators or titles that stick out in your memory as catalyzing your desire to enter the field creatively?
JO: I came across Will Eisner and The Spirit early in two Harvey Giant collections. Jack Kirby and Stan Lee also informed my comic book sensibilities, both working together and separately.
Denny O’Neil expanded my understanding of what you could do in the superhero field. I think I’m still in my formative years; there are so many writers out there today that continue to challenge me and how I think about comics.
BSB: It wasn’t long after you came into the four-color world along with the other First Comics creators that you and Timothy Truman worked together on Grimjack, and a few years later, after you had done Legends and had been working on Suicide Squad, that you and he collaborated in a somewhat different fashion on the ongoing Hawkworld title. How did you and Tim wind up in the same place again? Did one of you drag the other along, or did you take separate paths?
JO: Tim is a great friend and a tremendous talent in the industry. We followed what each other were doing as we followed our own paths. Tim originally wrote and drew the Hawkworld Prestige [mini]series which established the basics of the concept. When Mike Gold wanted to create an ongoing monthly, Tim was too busy to do it. I was brought in since Tim and I have similar sensibilities and a good understanding of each other. I think it worked out well.
BSB: If I may brownnose a little, I have to say that Hawkworld is the definitive version of Hawkman (and Hawkwoman/Hawkgirl) for me, and it’s always bothered me that DC never managed to keep your and Tim’s compact, sci-fi-inspired version of the characters as definitive canon. This might be a dumb question, but do you have a preferred version of the character?
JO: Well, my preferred version is Tim’s and I tried to add on to it. An editorial decision was made that the monthly would start up right after the Prestige series; it would be the first time that Katar and Shayera were on Earth, despite whatever continuity was there. I tried to explain that all away later; I think it worked, but it wasn’t perfect. I think you can overdo an origin. If you rewrite it too often, the origin just gets muddy and so does the character. Leave the origin alone and just tell good stories.
BSB: You and I share an interest in theology, and I’m a big believer (pun intended!) that those aspects of one’s worldview inform just about everything one might do creatively. Apart from the obvious influence on your work on The Spectre, do you think those themes have impacted any of your other work, consciously or otherwise?
JO: Certainly. Those questions certainly were a part of Grimjack and even the Suicide Squad could be seen as an exploration of morality. Wasteland asked moral and spiritual questions designed to make the reader uncomfortable. Such a challenge make you question what you believe, what you feel. That’s worthwhile even if you wind up disagreeing with the questions or the answers posited.
BSB: One your more unique writing collaborations was with a legendary comedian and acting coach, the late Del Close, who co-wrote the Wasteland anthology with you at DC, and who had even contributed backup stories to a few issues of Grimjack. Was he someone you had known from your days as an actor in Chicago?
JO: I knew of Del before I actually met him. Almost everyone in theater in Chicago knew of Del. His influence on American comedy is huge from his days at Second City as a director and teacher, and then later with the ImprovOlympics. I met Del when we were both cast in A Christmas Carol at the Goodman Theater. In fact, we shared a dressing room together the first year. I was a little intimidated at first; there were a lot of stories about Del but I discovered he was someone with a brilliant mind and wit and who loved science fiction and comics. Del later had me join one of his improv classes and it was one of the most liberating experiences I ever had as a writer. As we started up Munden’s Bar in the back of Grimjack, I sold the series to Mike Gold by suggesting maybe I could get Del to co-write stories with me. Mike’s eyes glistened. He was a big Del Close fan as well.
BSB: During that run on Suicide Squad I mentioned, you and your late wife Kim were responsible for resurrecting, in a way, the character of Barbara Gordon, who had recently been brutalized by the Joker (and perhaps a bit by Alan Moore). Did the idea for bringing her in as superhero dispatch/IT specialist Oracle originate with you or elsewhere?
JO: It originated with Kim and me. “Brutalized” is a good word for what was done to her in The Killing Joke. The Bat office weren’t going to do anything else with her and so we asked if we could use her. Kim especially was very adamant that we have Barbara in a wheelchair. We felt that there should be a consequence to what happened to her. We also felt that we could make her as important or more important to the DCU than she was as Batgirl by making her an information specialist. She had already been established as a computer expert so we simply expanded on that. The response was amazing and very positive.
BSB: With DC’s recent relaunch, of course, Barbara Gordon wound up being healed of her paraplegia and placed back into her old role as Batgirl, not without controversy. What are your own feelings on Barbara taking up the cowl again?
JO: She’s not my character; she belongs to DC. That’s their right.
BSB: Fair enough. It’s a pretty broad question, since it represents a large portion of your recent work, but what has your experience working on Dark Horse Comics’ Star Wars titles been like? There are certain strictures involved with working with any corporate property, but perhaps more so with Star Wars than with the superheroes of Marvel and DC. Have you found that there’s a balance to be struck between what you’d like to do with those stories and what you really can do?
JO: Actually, Jan [Duursema] and I were given a lot of latitude by Lucasfilm Licensing. It helped that Jan and I were both fans of Star Wars and knew it pretty well, Jan even more so than myself. We knew how to play in the Star Wars “sandbox”. It also helped that we mostly staked out sections of the EW universe that hadn’t been used much; we created our own turf, in a way. It wasn’t really that much more difficult than playing with any established continuity.
BSB: And you had to know this question was coming—Might there be a place for you on those Marvel Star Wars titles that are creeping up on us?
JO: Doesn’t look that way. I can understand; Marvel wants to start fresh, with a clean slate. I wish them luck.
BSB: I’ll let you take the closer, John—what do you want readers to keep in mind about the John Ostrander of 2015?
JO: I have several projects in development and I’d like to see them get launched in the coming year. In particular, I have an idea for a new Grimjack story. We’ll have to see how it comes together, but I’d like that launched in the coming year.