During a lengthy interview with Community News Service writer Bill Sanservino, Nicieza provided several detailed accounts about his life, his entry into publishing, the writing of his novel, and the comic book industry. Here are excerpts from that interview:
I was born in Buenos Aires and we came here when I was four-and-a-half to New York. My dad was an engineer, but he was also an artist. He had a bone china factory in Argentina, and the company didn’t succeed.
In his very dramatically Argentinian way, he said, “If I can’t live my dreams here, then I must go look somewhere else.”
His sister was already living in New York, because she was married to an international banker, who’s also an Argentinian. So they were already in Queens and they basically sponsored him and his green card to come in.
We came here to the United States in August ’66. We lived in Forest Hills, Queens and I started school in Queens. In 1968, my father got a new job that paid better, so we had to move New Jersey. Most of my dad’s career was in the toy industry.
He worked at Remko, which was an old toy company, and the new job he got was as a methods and standards line engineer in Edison, and we moved to Sayreville. So my elementary school years were in Sayreville.
I was in sixth grade when we moved to Old Bridge, and we went from an apartment to a house. I spent all of my middle school years, high school years and then my college years (at Rutgers) living in Old Bridge.
My first job out of college (in 1983) was a publishing company, Berkley Publishing, in New York. Then when my girlfriend, who became my wife, was going to start working for a government job with the state and it was in Lawrenceville.
I said to her, “Find me a place that gets me into the city, and I’m fine,” and she said, “Okay there’s a train station (Princeton Junction) right near where my new office is going to be.”
So we moved into Lawrence Square Village on Quakerbridge Road. We lived at the townhouse for five years and then we moved to a house in West Windsor.
We were in West Windsor for eight years and then we moved to Plainsboro in 2001, and we lived there until about 2014. Then the kids were in college and we wanted a smaller house, and we moved back to West Windsor.
Breaking into Publishing
Before I went to work at Berkley Publishing I had interviewed at both Marvel and DC comics, but I didn’t get either job because they were looking for a slightly higher level experience, and I had literally entry-level.
The guy who hired me at Berkley Publishing basically said that publishing is a really incestuous business. It’s who you know, taking advantage of that and getting the opportunities. He said, “You’ll make more money by leaving and coming back here than you would by staying.”
So I took that to heart. I really liked working at Berkley a lot. It was a good company. Really good people. We had an excellent softball team.
But as often happens in publishing, a friend of a friend’s co-worker has a sister who’s working at Marvel and is looking to hire an assistant, and it was in the manufacturing department of Marvel books. It wasn’t the comics department, and I had no real idea what that meant, because really there were not Marvel books back then in 1985.
She interviewed me and offered me the job. The department was responsible for all of their licensed activity. I did that job for four months. It’s not what I wanted to do, but it was me getting my foot in the door.
I got hired there in August of ’85, and in December ’85, the guy who got hired instead of me back in 1983 was looking to hire an assistant, and he hired me.
Then, all of a sudden, they merged publicity with direct market sales and turned us into a little promotion and publicity department.
All of 1986 was me basically being everyone’s assistant. By the end of ’86, the boss said, “Fabian, you’re going to be the advertising manager because that’s your strength.”
So, I got a promotion, and my job was to write and produce all of the advertising that promoted Marvel Comics in Marvel’s comic books. I wrote copy lines and worked with the art director. I was doing four to six house ads, sell sheets, co-op ads, promotional flyers, promo posters and in-store displays.
I loved the job. It was great writing experience, because you’re condensing content into something that attracts someone in the middle of all of the hoopla that goes on within a comic book. You have to have a page that draws your eye and makes you pay attention to it, because on the page before, there might be a building exploding and the page after might be Spider-Man diving into 16 characters, so you got to make sure your ad is something that draws attention.
I did the job for several years, and I started selling my writing (for the comic books) while I was advertising manager. Back then Marvel would hire internal staff personnel to write freelance, but I wasn’t doing it on the job. I was doing it at home. All of the creative freelance work was done outside the company’s offices.
So I was doing my advertising manager job 9 to 5, and little by little the writing just kept taking off. I enjoyed being at the company a lot, and I had a growing role within the company.
I always wanted to be a writer, but I really enjoyed the staff work and the staff interaction (of the regular day job).
After about four and a half years as advertising manager, I wrote a copy line that sounded really boring and vaguely familiar to me, and it was because I had written that same boring line a couple of weeks earlier.
I said, “Okay, that’s it.” The editor-in-chief at that time had been asking me if I wanted to be an editor (for the comic books), because they knew me by then, and they understood that the skill sets I brought to putting an ad together is no different than the skill sets necessary to put a comic together.
I basically decided to switch over to editorial — not so much because I had a burning desire to be an editor, because it’s honestly an incredibly thankless job, but I wanted to stay within the company, and I wanted a new challenge.
So I became an editor, and in 1990, I think I was Marvel’s editor for most of their licensed material. So when I started, there was Alf, the old TV show with a little fuzzy alien guy. We had an Alf comic. I was going to be launching two Barbie titles, and Ren and Stimpy. We ended up with a book based on William Shatner’s, Tech World novel series.
It was a weird mix of a lot of things. I told them that if I’m going to be an editor, I wanted to be editing things that are not like what I’m writing, and at that point I was mostly exclusively writing superhero stuff.
Even though it was excruciating, the job was still a great learning experience, because I had to work with outside licensors and companies. I had to do a tremendous amount of presentations to them because companies go through licensing departments like candy bars.
Every six months, they cycle a whole new licensing department through. I literally had to train three different licensing groups within Mattel about how comics are put together within a 14 month span. It was mind-boggling, you know?
I did that until about ’94-ish, and the writing had taken off so much. I was writing some of Marvel’s top-selling books at the time — the X-books: X-men, X-Force, Cable. All three were top 10 books for quite a while. That’s when we created Deadpool. (Nicieza created the character with writer/artist Robert Liefeld.)
The books were selling a tremendous amount of copies back then, and the writing was making me nine-tenths of my income, but the editorial job was taking nine-tenths of my time.
I’m not a math whiz, but those numbers didn’t make a lot of sense, so I basically cut back on my editorial job and was made an internal consultant. I did that going in two days a week in ’95 just to stay with my foot in the door in the company, until too many things were happening within the company that weren’t comfortable for me.
I ended up quitting all my writing and my staff job at Marvel in a 12-month span. By the end of 95, I was barely writing anything for them, and I was no longer on staff.
That’s when the guy who owned Acclaim Comics was trying to get to come over and run their company. (Nicieza was hired by Acclaim Comics as senior vice-president and editor-in-chief in 1996, and he became president and publisher in 1997. He left Acclaim in 1999.)
There was a two to three year span there where I was overworked, and it was my own bad, conscious choice to do that. I was working seven days a week and also traveling for the company doing store appearances, convention appearances. I was doing a lot of distributor meeting presentations, licensing meetings, international publishing meetings, all of this stuff.
After Acclaim, I really kind of slowed down a lot on purpose. And my second kid was born, so I started writing from home and basically purposefully scaling down quite a lot.
I’ve done comic book work for pretty much every major company. I’ve done intellectual property management and story world development with the company Starlight Runner Entertainment in New York. I’ve done animation bibles.
I wrote X-Men for three years and it was the number one selling book marvel had. It was selling 700,000 copies a month at that time. At one point, the combined total of the books I was writing for Marvel through 93 through 94 I think averaged like 1.9 million copies sold a month.
Writing ‘Suburban Dicks’
At the end of 2017, I just said, “I’ve got to give (writing ‘Suburban Dicks’) a shot, because if I don’t finish one that I start, then what? What kind of a writer have I been? I’ve been a professional writer. I’ve been paid to write for 35 years, but when I was 15 years old I wanted to write a book.
So I just started it, and I realized for the first time that I probably was writing in my own voice and not somebody else’s, or badly trying to copy a better writer.
So I just started writing, and I got like three chapters into it, and I said, “I don’t think this is that bad.” That was literally my objective critical assessment. This is not that bad.
I gave it to a couple people to read and I got really positive feedback, and that was enough to encourage me to keep going. So I just kept going, and I wrote little bits at a time. It wasn’t my regular gig, because it wasn’t a paying gig. So it took me over a year to write the first draft of the novel.
Then a friend of mine recommended that I hire an editor to go through it and tell me where I could tighten, trim, cut, because it was too long, and I knew it was too long.
The manuscript got down to about 450 pages, and I had luckily met an agent through my work with Starlight Runner — Albert Lee at UTA (United Talent Agency), who loved the idea of the book and said he’d be willing to show it to other agents internally at UTA when it was done.
So I got lucky that I had that going for me, and I presented it to Albert. A group of people at UTA read it, gave me notes on where to cut more and make some character tweaks and some character changes.
Ellen Claire Lamb was the first editor who I hired to read it. That was January or February of 2019. Albert got a manuscript version in summer of 2019, and they gave me notes back in September 2019, did my rewrites by November 2019, and I’d gotten it down to about 400 pages. My first draft was 547 pages.
At that point, I told Albert, “If we’ve got to change more, I want someone who is actually willing to buy it to be the one to tell me that. I don’t want to just be shooting in the dark anymore.”
Albert said, “Fine, let’s take it out,”
When Albert took it out, he sent it to some of the top buying editors at some of the top hardcover fiction houses, and we had multiple editors who wanted to buy it. Multiple companies who wanted the book, and we actually ended up having an auction between several publishing companies, which was incredibly phenomenally fun and weird and unexpected.
At the end of the day, there were two publishers left, and each of them had offered a two-book deal as a way to try to sweeten the whole pot.
We ended up deciding to go with Putnum for many reasons — the experience of the editor involved and the level of attention they would focus on it because of the nature of the contract. We knew that it would be a book they would promote and publicize, because it would be in their best interest to do that.
The idea that my first novel is being published by the company that I first worked for out of college also meant something to me (Berkley is part of Putnam).
I thought that was a really nice story. Not just a nice story to tell, but a nice story to feel.
For me it’s been really weird talking about the book as some measure of creative fulfillment. Sometimes I’m feeling that from a lot of people, friends especially. Quite honestly, it’s like, what the hell you think I’ve been doing for the last 30 years? A part of me gets a little defensive when I’m being told that the book is like an accomplishment etc., etc., etc.
I’ve sold a hundred million comic books. In my mind, I just type and I want to be paid when I type. That’s how I’ve been operating for a long, long time.
I have a kind of a weird quirky perspective on it. I’m happy the book is getting really good reviews, and I’m surprised and pleased about that, but I don’t want to think that if this hadn’t been published, I would have died a failure.
The Comic Book Industry
It’s a lot better today than it was 40 years ago when I broke in. Back in ’85, it was still, “Pow! Zam! Bok! — comics aren’t just for kids anymore.”
The medium has expanded its genre approach and its storytelling approach to adults in a way that’s far more accepted.
The success of the (superhero) movies totally changes the perception of who you are, in terms of being a creative person. I noticed that just with the book alone because, saying, “the co-creator of Deadpool” 10 years ago wouldn’t have meant much to anyone outside of our industry.
Saying you are the co-creator of Deadpool now, for the most part, even a 55-year-old editor in a publishing company who doesn’t read comics may have seen the movie — or at least knows of the movie — and has seen the licensing material everywhere.
It’s been a very slow turn of the wheel, but in my experience the wheel has absolutely turned.
Back at Marvel, we used to call people who didn’t read comic books “civilians.” There are still many “civilians” who have not really been exposed to comics and don’t read comics.
Me and my brother read comics, because that’s how we learned how to read and write English when we were little kids, and we always drew, so we just kept reading comics.
It wasn’t the be-all and end-all of my existence, but it was an important part of the maturation of my imagination and my interests in creative storytelling.
But none of my friends ever read them growing up, and none of my friends read comics, so I still feel like I exist in a very stigmatized world. Even though the world is far more inviting to us. To “our kind, our people.”
I started reading comics when I was five years old, and I’m turning 60 this year. So, in one way, shape, or form I’ve been involved and engaged in this for 55 years of my life. But, what I throw back at people when we have these discussions is, “what the hell, did we win?”
We didn’t win nothing. I ain’t making the Marvel movie money, am I? No, I don’t think I am. It is good, but unfortunately, nerd culture by its very definition has a really, really hard time being among the accepted. And as a result, they now have their own fractured infighting among their culture for what is acceptable behavior within accepted behavior. It’s a fascinating dynamic.
I’ve also written every major DC superhero character in a five-year window, where I had a contract to write just for them. I think that’s because I worked on a weekly book called Trinity that had a lot of characters in it, so I ended up having to write a lot of characters that way.
Plus I’ve done some custom comics for DC that included the Justice League and things like that. I’ve gotten to write Superman in an issue of Action Comics and in an issue of Superman. I’ve gotten to write Batman, in an issue of Batman and an issue of Detective Comics.
Dick Grayson has been my favorite comic character since I was a kid. I’ve gotten to write Dick Grayson as Robin and I’ve gotten to write him as Nightwing. I also got to write him as Batman when he was Batman for a little while.
As a writer coming through the industry in the ’80s, our goal was to get a monthly assignment and be on that monthly assignment forever. If we were told we’d only be getting a hundred issues of a book, we’d feel we were getting gypped. Nowadays it’s really hard to get longevity on a series.
I could write Dick Grayson for a hundred issues without batting an eye. I could write Tim Drake, who was the second Robin, without batting an eye. I got to write them two times for about 24 issues total, but I actually had notes ready to take me all the way through 75, at least.
But writers don’t work that way now, and I wouldn’t now, either, at my advanced age and declining brain power.
If you had asked me this 25 years ago, I’d probably have a different answer than I do now, because I was still in the thick of the discovery of it. The feeling of it being something raw or new.
But now I just kind of place it on a shelf like a trophy. It feels good, but how many times do we look at the trophies that we have on the shelf? We got to remember to dust the trophies that we have on the shelf.