Comics: Elaine Lee and Michael William Kaluta on Starstruck—Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

Starstruck—past, present, and future shock

By , Columnist

Picking right up where we left off last time, Elaine Lee and Michael William Kaluta discuss some of the controversies that surrounded the original release of Starstruck and why they have no real concerns about their work being received in the same way in today’s marketplace.

They also share some of their fond memories surrounding the early days of their collaboration, and provide a few hints at what they hope the future holds in the conclusion of our extended conversation.

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But that does bring up an aspect of the story, at least one from the past, which was that it did stir up some controversy because of some of the, shall we say, free-wheeling attitudes on display in the series.

EL: You have to remember… think about the television that’s happened since then. We were there [ahead of our time], as far as the female characters go. This was before Buffy and Xena, Warrior Princess and all these other shows with strong, independent female characters. It was before Lost and Heroes, and that kind of television with big casts that jump around in time and aren’t linear stories. People had not seen that before.

Now, people are used to it. It’s just a part of pop culture. So, I don’t think there’s going to be the same problem that there was when we first came out in 1982.

MWK: Hey, we weren’t done any favors by having Heavy Metal chopping the stories up so they would fit in the space they had. It was tough enough, and fun, already.

Yeah, it was one of those instances where you read the new installments as they came out, and then put it all aside to read them all together later on to fully grasp it all.

EL: Yeah.

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But another thing that will work in your favor is that ideas and attitudes about sex and gender identity have changed a lot since then, haven’t they?

EL: Yes, absolutely.

Because, if I remember it correctly, that aspect also caused some real controversy back then.

EL: You know, I think it was more my gender than the gender of the characters that was the problem at the time. Because we came out around the same time Love and Rockets came out, and that had all those female characters, but the creators were male. I don’t have any hard feelings about that or anything. It’s just that there weren’t a lot of female creators back then, and I think it was noticeable that one of the few did this book with all these female characters.

Doing things that real women do.

EL: Yes. So there was speculation in the fan press about my sexual orientation and things like that. Nobody talked about Jaime Hernandez, his orientation. “Oh, he must be a sissy boy. He likes these girls!” [Laughter]

MWK: He deserves that. He’s a great guy, but he deserves that.

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Well, at the time, Jaime might have kicked their ass if they had said that at the time!

MWK: Uh-huh.

EL: Yeah! I don’t really care if people speculate about my sexual orientation, except it was remarkable that I got the speculation and the guys didn’t. But, you know, things have changed so much since then, and people are used to, like I said, those big cast shows like Heroes and Lost. They have a lot of female characters in those shows.

MWK: And a lot of misdirection, and people who lie for half of a year, or three quarters of a year, and then you find out, “Oh, they were lying to me!”

EL: But we started doing Starstruck when comics were very straightforward. And most of the women, they’d be on a superhero team of five people and she’s the only gal—you know, that sort of thing.

Other than Chris Claremont; I have to always give him credit for his women.

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Right, and they were fairly realistic, particularly for the time, too. They had relationships and conflicts, and sometimes did the wrong things for all of the wrong reasons. It’s a bit like you guys were doing something akin to The Watchmen before there was The Watchmen, in the sense of taking the medium seriously.

EL: Well, the truth is, we weren’t thinking about that. We met each other and hit it off, and we had such a similar sensibility. We met each other through our work.

We always tell this story of how we met at a restaurant, at a bar. Michael was drawing, and I didn’t know who he was. And I was doing plays, and was on a soap (NBC’s The Doctors) at the time, but he really didn’t know who I was. And I invited him to a play, and he saw it.

In the meantime, I had discovered he was this guy whose work I had seen. And I went, “Oh, it’s that guy!” So we kind of knew each other’s work, or saw each other’s work. Then he saw my play before we really got to know each other, and liked that.

MWK: The idea behind it is that we didn’t set out with a plan to change comics, or impact things…

EL: We just had fun, it was fun for us. We made up stuff that we liked. And if it challenged comics, then, that’s what it did. Or if it pushed the boundaries…

I see the difference in the son that I told you about and the comics he does. His ideas are really interesting, but I think he doesn’t play with the form the way that we did, so he will make much more money. And I’m happy for that!

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Well, what was it about Michael, as both an artist and a person, that really helped spark things creatively between you two?

EL: Well, the first thing, because I read Heavy Metal—and Starstruck simply wouldn’t have happened if I wasn’t interested in that kind of thing—I saw a painting of his called “The Fate of Dollies Lost in Dreams.” And it was a bed flying through the air in a sort of twilight sky, and a little girl looking over the edge of the bed, just her eyes and her fists clutching the covers, and a doll falling down into the abyss. She’s watching her doll fall from this flying bed, and I just loved that picture!

And after I met Michael at the bar, I was in West Side Comics, and they had a poster for The Studio book. And that picture was a representative of his work on that poster. And I went, “Oh my God! That picture that I love so much was by that guy I just met.”

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So I left tickets for the play that we were doing at the time at the box office and I called him and said, “Listen, I left you comp tickets. You have to come see our play.” And, of course, he slept through it that night and didn’t show up! 

MWK: I didn’t show up, yeah.

EL: So I called again and said, “Hey, I’m leaving them again tonight, and it’s the last night of the play.” So he showed up that night.

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MWK: Yeah, I regret that. It was such a terrific play, and I would have loved to have seen it a lot more often. But, as Elaine will remember, a year or two later, when you all were having the Dead Dog Party for Starstruck (the play), she and her sister were reading the original play that I had seen, and I knew all the parts because I had listened to it once! It was just so good.

The play Starstruck was being written before we met. I was fascinated, because they had big bunches of science fiction books and magazines on a table of the restaurant, and I thought, “Well, that’s a natural—I’ll go and talk to those girls!” But I remember, I had 5 by 7 cards and was looking through them—this was the basic plot of Starstruck—and everything was so science fiction, but without being like what Mad magazine would do with Star Wars. You know, rename the characters very closely so you make a little bit of a pun.

And it didn’t rely on other people’s work to sell the story. It was an absolutely original story they were doing, but it had these elements—what we now call tropes and memes—all through it that I just loved.

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EL: We had ideas in it that were from other places besides science fiction. I remember that, in the play, the characters of the Erotica Ann Droid, who’s very sexy and really smart, and Brucilla, who’s sort of a role reversal. She’s like a young guy, a hot-headed young lieutenant kind of guy, but a girl.

At the time was there was an argument among feminists between women who were traditionally feminine and women who were “I want to go out and be like the guys, and work at guy jobs and be a CEO of a company” kind of thing, or “I want to go into the military.” So those two characters represented those extremes of femininity in popular culture. And they argued all the time in the play. 

So, those kinds of things weren’t really from science fiction, but you could really play with them in the realm of science fiction.

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Michael, was that idea, of throwing those kind of really rich material into comics, is that what you liked about Elaine’s work at the time?

MWK: Absolutely. The play I saw that they were already doing at the time, the last performance of which I saw, had a science fiction element to it. But what it really was, was interesting characters talking to each other about stuff that I loved hearing about, but would never have thought about myself—and always done in a clever way.

One of the things that I’ve always liked about the way Elaine writes is that—she doesn’t do it on purpose, I don’t think—her dialogue will set you up to expect the next line, and it’s not the next line. The next line is totally different, but apt. And that’s when you realize, “Oh, I’m in the hands of someone who knows what they’re doing. I’d better go along with her because I can’t guess what’s next.”

And her play that I saw there, The Contamination of the Kokomo Lounge, was that sort of a ride. It had all the earmarks of something that you would expect: A post apocalyptic situation, with a couple of characters that knew each other very, very well from when they were kids, and how do they deal with the fact that the world just ended. Yet, you were rolling on the floor and laughing your ass off!

EL: Because they were so stupid! 

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MWK: They were so, so sweetly stupid. 

So, I’d pretty much given up drawing comics because ... well, I like to tell myself it was because I had gotten bored, or whatever. The comic book stories that I was being given were always the same story. If there was a girl, she was there to get beat up by somebody, so you knew that was the bad guy. I thought, “You know, we used to do that with dogs, but now it’s girls? Can we just not?” And it still gets done now and then.

EL: Of course we made fun of the dog thing. 

MWK: Of course.

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EL: We had our villainess kick a little dog.

MWK: Kick a couple dogs a couple times, yes. “Get it?” You know, it was like, “Get it?”

So I had pretty much said, “Naw, no more comics.” So designing some costumes and some sets and things like that, and a poster, that was a whole lot of fun.

And then when it came down to it, we wanted to do more with it, and Elaine asked me, “Do you want to draw a comic book?” I was against it at first. But, once the decision was made…

I’ve drawn more Starstruck than I’ve drawn of any other kind of comic book in the world.

So, you know, “No, he’s known for The Shadow!” Okay. Well, there’s about 500 pages of Shadow art, maybe 600. But look at how many pages there are of Starstruck—hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of ‘em! So, it came easy, and we do look forward to getting back to it.

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Well, it has kept your interest throughout the years, obviously.

MWK: Yeah, very much so.

Is that what you think this project will offer new readers? That it’s something that’s going to hook them, and just drag them into that universe?

MWK: Well, it could. But I know they’re just going to love the characters, even the little bitty characters that are just walking by in the background. They’re just going to find something to, if not relate to, at least be entertained by.

EL: They will, at the very least, care about Harry and his story. And if the little bits that they see of the other characters he comes into contact with pulls them into the rest of the story, then that’s great.

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How about long time fans? What will this give them?

MWK: More! They’re already saying that on the Facebook page. They’re going, “There’s more! We can have more!”

EL: If this goes well and we make this, if we make our Kickstarter funding goal and the book happens, there will be more, because we have more of it that we want to finish.

MWK: There’s a lot more, yeah.

EL: I’d say at least as much as another one of those IDW giant books.

MWK: Yep. And the thing about more in the case of Starstruck is that it’s not just more of the same. It’s more in that universe, but it’s also more of that being taken out of your comfort zone and then put into Elaine’s comfort zone, which is a lot more colorful, sometimes. 

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Given that this is something that you both love and enjoy doing, is Starstruck something that you could see yourselves working on for the rest of your lives?

EL: Well, at this point, how much time is that? That could be next week, I’m afraid!  On the Kickstarter site, they ask about risks and challenges. And I said, “I suppose one of use could contract a quickly progressing fatal disease!”

MWK: Yep.

EL: But, we hope not.

Yes, I could see doing this, but it probably won’t be the only thing that either of us does. But I could see continuing to do it, certainly.

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MWK: It would sure be fun to get as much of the story as we already know out in print so that it’s there for (whoever wants it)—even if it’s just that one person in the future who will go, “Look at all this stuff, and it keeps on going!”

You know, when I discover a new artist, a new book that isn’t really new, it’s a hundred years old, and I start reading and I start getting into it and I realize, “This was written for me a hundred, two hundred years before I was born!” I’m very, very excited. I’m really glad that whoever did it, like say Shakespeare, did all that work, right?

EL: You’re not comparing us to Shakespeare, are you?

MWK: No, I’m not. That’s for the interviewer to do! 

Exactly! 

MWK: Though what I am saying, as a body of work to be discovered, it would be very nice to have as much of Starstruck done as possible before they close the big door.

EL: A legacy, as George W. Bush would say.

MWK: A legacy.

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A veteran journalist who has covered the comics medium since 1998, Bill Baker is also the author of Icons: The DC Comics and WildStorm Art of Jim Lee and seven previous books featuring his extended interviews with Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and other notable creators. You can learn more about Bill’s work…

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