INTERVIEW: Tom King, student of life, master of comics

tom king interview
Writer Tom King (image: Getty Images)

For a writer surrounded by and immersed in fantasy, it’s amazing how real Tom King’s writing is.

“Let me put my kids to bed,” he says before we can begin our conversation. He calls to his wife to let her know we’re about to start.

I ask Tom how many kids he has.

“I have three.” He yawns and then shouts, “The call came through, hon! Sorry, just talking to my wife.”

Like I was going to pass this up. His voice sounds as exhausted as he looked when I hung out with him in Boston this summer.

“Two extra cons this year seemed like a good idea.” He chuckles to me.

Oh man, I hear that. I mean, I’m just covering cons, but even to do that has such a massive impact on my family life. The home perspective is that I’m having a great time, talking to comic creators like Tom or interviewing other pop culture celebrities. Yeah, I’m drinking with them in the evenings, to be sure, but it’s no picnic in the day.

It’s actually pretty late in the evening. Both Tom and I are night-owls and I’m no stranger to a dad’s established responsibility of the “night-time” routine. It’s always amazing to me how pumped and energetic my kids are by the end of the day, when I’m dragging myself into their bedrooms to say goodnight, read stories and tuck them in. It must have something to do with comics.

Tom King is a dad, a husband and also a comics devotee.

“I just want people to know how dedicated I am to this medium,” he tells me.

Who am I to argue with the Patron Saint of Grown-Up Fan-Boys? After all, I’m nearing my fiftieth year, a father of two myself and yeah, I’m still reading these books that, at one time, people dismissed and poo-pooed as drivel.

Heh… I learned to read at the age of three because of this drivel.

But Tom has a deeper and more profound background than my own. After all, not only was this guy inspired after 9/11 to serve his country, but he served with the CIA, working in the most dangerous theaters of military operation at the time. His writing is clearly influenced by his experiences in the Middle East, as evinced in his award-winning work, The Sheriff of Babylon, drawn by the immensely talented Mitch Gerads.

the sheriff of babylon - tom king
(Vertigo Comics)

King’s writing takes a simple premise and makes it complicated. You know, when a simple marriage is about one of the greatest superheroes and a notorious supervillainess? Or when a newly married couple have a baby, who is the grandson of a near-omnipotent, cosmic being? It’s a gift to be able to set the most mundane premises against fantastical backgrounds.

But this is the stuff that great stories are made of.

Hey, I teach, write about comics, and collect Star Trek paraphernalia. I’m hardly an award-winning specimen of manhood, but I relate to Tom as a husband and father. That, I know a lot about. In fact, I think Tom is the patron saint of dads who have grown up with comics, because this guy is writing for us. This man creates what Batman dares to dream about and yeah, despite my lovely wife and amazingly accomplished young daughters, yeah, THAT’S what I think is cool.

So, I wanted to know more about what constitutes Tom’s day. He chuckled at this.

“There’s no such thing as a regular day in my house. I got three kids and a dog and a lovely wife, and they pretty much dictate my day in terms of a schedule or if emergencies come up. There might be a practice, or another might need a teacher conference – there’s very rarely a schedule in my house. It takes me a week to write a comic book – well, three days, but five days really.”

The wow I exclaim is genuine. The speed at which he writes is stunning. I write part-time. The freedom to write a project, and to know it can get done in a realistic segment of time is something astounding to me. I know this is Tom’s full-time career, but the balancing of it within his domestic life is a feat that I struggle with as well and his quickness is not only appealing to the less-than-cool fan boy in me, but somewhat inspirational to the outer adult I have to be.

I can relate to Tom King.

Huh, who knew?

“Typically speaking, I get the kids off to school and the wife off to work and I start my day. My most productive hours are in the early afternoon.”

Transitioning from Intelligence work for the CIA to writing seems like the strangest way to get into comic books. But when you consider the type of work Tom did, before writing his novel, A Once Crowded Sky, maybe it isn’t. After all, Tom interned at DC and Marvel Comics before his work as a counter-terrorism operations officer. He quit the CIA to write his novel about super-heroes who no longer had their powers and had to live in a world that still needed defending. It sounds like the type of thing a comic lover would write after what he’d seen in the real world.

batman - i am gotham - tom king
(DC Comics)

It’s clear that Tom loves the normality of life; at least it figures very prominently in his writing. Family dynamics, simple values like home, friendship, marriage, and parenting all show up, set against the fantasy storylines in his comics. Mister Miracle and Big Barda have a new child while fighting a war between Apokolips and new Genesis; Batman falls in love, and don’t even get me started on pointing out the emulated lifestyle of the Vision family.

Tom knows what he loves.

“The CIA was the odd part. I’ve always loved comics and I always wanted to be a writer. When I was a little kid, I wanted to be a comic book writer. I was in love with comics but I didn’t think it was possible. It’s as simple as that. When I interned at Marvel and DC, comics were going through a bad time, Marvel was going bankrupt when I graduated from college, and the industry was collapsing. I was thinking about being a lawyer but when 9/11 happened, like a million other people, I just volunteered.”

The appearance of Tom’s son, Charlie changed that.

“Then I’d have to serve overseas. When my wife was pregnant with our son, Charlie, who’s now nine, I couldn’t be the father I wanted to be and I couldn’t be the CIA officer I wanted to be; some people can pull that off, but not me. I needed to be there for my family. I could get one terrorist to spy on another terrorist, but in industry, that just wasn’t useful to me. So, I took a year off to pursue a dream – I know it sounds kinda cliché, for what it’s worth, but I could care for my kid full time, be Mr. Mom or whatever. So, I changed diapers all day and between the hours of midnight and 3 am I wrote my first novel.”

tom king - a once crowded sky

Night owls make the best writers, it seems. Not only do they have an inherent recognition that life has to come first and writing second, but they are still driven to create. There’s something about a quiet house, when the kids are asleep that fosters creativity – at least, that’s the way it works in my house. But, I think the love of those values also allows for the freedom to create and to love the creativity. Creators often punish themselves with overly harsh self-criticism, but being alone allows time and opportunity to work that out and express themselves.

“The schedule worked for me. I’d sleep from 3 until 8 and then I’d nap when the kid would nap.” He laughs. “My kids would sleep and my wife would sleep and that’s when I’d write.”

I mentioned that he must have had a supportive wife.

“I have the best wife any man could have. That’s why I dedicate everything I write to her. It wouldn’t have happened without her.”

Tom has two personalities. In person, he’s outgoing, self-deprecatingly funny and completely exciting for his fans to enjoy. In his writing though, he’s serious and has a deeper maturity that is masked behind a darker humour. I asked Tom about this.

“I don’t know about that,” he says, laughing. “I mean, Mister Miracle is a pretty funny book! It makes me laugh.   Well, yeah. It’s funny. You never know how it’s going to come out when you write. Usually I have a lot of fun when I’m writing something I think is humorous, but the best jokes come from dark places. Like think Die Hard when they’re laughing so hard when they’re trapped and about to die – ‘Come out to the coast; have a few drinks.’ We live in dark times. It’s the best thing that humour can do: it takes the sting out of the worst moments so we can face them. I’m not a serious person – I never take myself seriously.”

(DC Comics)

I asked Tom if he ever channels anyone when he wrote.

“Oh, yeah. I try to copy people sometimes. Back in 2012, when podcasting started to come out, I’d listen to every author interview I could, especially comic book authors. I read The Paris Review because it had interviews with every author for the past fifty years or something! I love to get inside the mind of people who write. Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Frank Miller; Gaiman is probably the guy I steal from the most. I mean, looking at Sandman – the way he controls the narrative, it’s sublime. I love the post-Hemmingway prose style – minimalist, just-write-the-damn-plot-already type of thing.”

I asked Tom if he studied writing in school.

“I never took one single writing course. I double majored in History and Philosophy. Wrote my theses on World War One and Existentialism.”

I laughed at that. One of my degrees is in History as well. I remarked that was a great combination background for a comic writer; not only did he have the benefit of 20/20 hindsight on possible writing material but he could philosophically muse about it as well.

“I was always super jealous of my friends who were coming out of Columbia; It attracts all the New York novelists. But I think that was good, because if I did I would have probably taken one of Scott Snyder’s courses; he was a few years ahead of me!” He laughs. “His wife and I graduated the same year. But I regretted never taking a writing course, but I’d go to Barnes & Noble and buy every book on writing. I’d sit on the floor, my kid in a stroller, and give myself the writing courses I never took. Which I think turned out okay for me. Philosophy and History served me well.”

The family dynamics are key in enjoying King’s writing. It’s regular life.

the vision - tom king
From ‘The Vision, Vol. 1: Little Worse Than a Man’ (Marvel Comics)

“I’m a guy who deals with family every day. It comes out in my work. I wish I could be more original than that.”

King went on to say that “it could be frustrating.” Tom, by nature, is very prone to putting himself down, but I disagreed with this. His writing comes from a place of reality and connects with more than just the average comic reader. He connects with people who not only grew up reading comics, but who can actually appreciate having to grow up and assume adult responsibilities. While Tom may have dismissed his willingness to serve in the CIA as just something “a million other people did”, it’s also as true that a million others didn’t.

No one forced Tom to get married, be a dad, serve his country and then follow his own dream. These were enlightened choices made out of a desire to live a good life.

Domesticity isn’t bad, but it is real. But King shows us that reality can serve as the basis of the greatest of fantasies. Writers spin their experiences like thread and weave great tapestries for us. Life is the greatest teacher and while we may be the sum of our experiences, it’s those experiences that can also be the source of dreams. All we have to ask ourselves is: What if?

“The whole point of writing is empathy; you try to get into someone else’s head and try to communicate something to society that should be obvious.”

Like life? The value of living a good life? The power of relationships and trusting someone to be with you for the rest of your life? What about kids and the power they hold over us and the love between a father and daughter? These are precious things – the stuff that makes living worthwhile and while we under-rate them as things of domestic stress and tension, they are what propel us to be our very best.

tom king - john kirk
Pop Mythology contributor John Kirk (right) poses with Tom King (image: courtesy of John K. Kirk)

To be a good father, husband and to excel at whatever your profession is are good things to write about.

Greg Capullo likes to quote the Bible and shares this particular piece of wisdom with fans: “whatever your hand findeth to do, do it with all your might.” That’s clearly a maxim Tom shares with his fellow Batman creator.

“I love to talk about writing; it’s my favourite subject to talk about.” King tells me. “I love comics – I love this medium. Not to be over dramatic, but comics saved my life. I had nowhere to go and comics found me. I love comics, and I hope it shows.”

It shows. Tom’s lines at all the cons I’ve ever seen him at, extend around the corners. He called my kid a superhero. Tom sees life through a comic lens and not only does he love comics, they love him back.

It’s important to note that ever since Karen Berger, formerly of DC Comics/Vertigo Press, gave Tom his first break, he has gone on to win multiple Eisner, Harvey and its successor, Ringo Awards for his work on Marvel’s Vision and DC’s Batman and Mister Miracle. It’s not just his favourite subject to talk about, it’s a subject that he is a favourite in.

You want to talk real life?

Tom King turns life into fantasy and that’s about as real as it gets.

About Captain John K. Kirk

Captain John K. Kirk
John Kirk is an English and History teacher and librarian in Toronto, Canada. In addition to the traditional curriculum, John tries to teach his students to make sense of geek culture. And with the name "J. Kirk," it's hard for him to not inject "Star Trek" into his lessons. Comics, RPGs and the usual fanboy gear make up his classroom resources.