When you get the chance to interview a comic book writer, you jump at the chance. But some chances are more special than others, and having the chance to speak to Greg Pak recently was a real treat. Fan favorite author of Marvel’s Planet Hulk, the feature film Robot Stories, and currently writing Skaar: Son of Hulk, Greg Pak is a man who really needs no further introduction. I got the chance to speak with the author recently about his past and what is coming up for him, so without further ado, let’s introduce Greg Pak!
Geeks of Doom: First of all, for those who don’t already know who you are… who are you?
Greg Pak: I’m a filmmaker and writer living in New York City who’s probably best known in the film world for Robot Stories and in the comic world for Planet Hulk and World War Hulk.
GoD: What did you want to be when you grew up?
GP: I actually was just going through some old papers and found an essay I wrote when I was ten or eleven about how I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. And through grade school, high school, and college, I wrote dozens of short stories. But somewhere along the line I stopped thinking about writing professionally. Instead, I studied political science as an undergraduate at Yale and then worked for Ann Richards when she was running for Governor of Texas. I was well on my way to becoming a political staffer, or maybe even running for office someday. But then I had the chance to study history at Oxford, where I got myself involved with a student filmmaking group. And then all those storytelling lights came back on. I went to NYU’s graduate film school, and, fifteen years or so later, here I am, doing what I wanted to do when I was ten years old.
GoD: Wikipedia describes you as a “film director/comic book writer.” Which of these are you first and foremost?
GP: I’ll be pretentious and say that first and foremost, I’m a storyteller who at any given time might be working in film or comics.
GoD: Your early film work seems to have focused on Asian American themes, such as Fighting Grandpa and Asian Pride Porn. Without necessarily connecting the two (which would seem, on the surface, awkward), you obviously have a deep influence from your heritage. Tell us a little about your early film work and where you drew your inspiration.
GP: I’m half Korean and half white. These days, people usually think I’m the same ethnicity as whomever I’m standing next to — Latino or Arab or Jewish or Native American or Dutch or whatever — I’ve heard it all. But I’ve always identified strongly as Asian American. When I was a kid I looked pretty much straight up Asian and got my share of racist taunts. But my parents taught me to be proud of my heritage and the Boy Scouts taught me that America was all about liberty and justice for all. The upshot is that I think a big motivating factor for me in becoming a storyteller was this desire to break down the barriers that separate people, to do my little bit to humanize different kinds of people.
“Fighting Grandpa” was my thesis film at NYU — it’s a documentary that asks whether my Korean grandparents ever really loved each other. It’s an incredibly specific story, rooted in one Korean American family’s unique quirks and history. But after screenings, people of all different backgrounds would come up to me and say that that was the story of their grandparents. That meant a great deal to me on a personal level, of course. But it also made me happy because it meant that folks of all different backgrounds had bonded with these Asian American people on the screen in a way that they might never have before. And in a world in which Asians are still horribly stereotyped and ridiculed in the most repellently racist ways in all kinds of media, that felt like a good thing.
In a kind of crazy way, those same impulses have probably helped me write the Hulk. On one level, “Planet Hulk” is about how what we think we know about a person can be completely wrong. Everyone knows the Hulk and his Warbound companions are monsters. But by the end of the story, we realize they may just be heroes. People are always deeper and usually better than the stereotypes would have us believe.
GoD: And, more recently is Robot Stories, which managed to collect a nice haul of awards. How did you come up with the story for the movie, and what was your reaction after it did so well?
GP: I’ve always loved science fiction short stories. I was a huge Ray Bradbury fan as a kid — the way he combined everyday human experiences and interactions with insanely big sci-fi ideas blew my little mind. So over the years, I’d come up with a number of sci-fi stories of my own, several of which I’d written as short screenplays. And one day I was looking through my files and saw that I had three different short screenplays that dealt with love, family, and robots. And I realized I might have an anthology film in the making. I workshopped the screenplay, did a reading, mulled over the feedback, wrote a fourth story to flesh out the themes, and the end result was “Robot Stories.”
The film’s done very well for such a tiny, independent movie — it won over 35 awards, played in over 75 film festivals, and screened around the US in limited theatrical release. Now it’s available on DVD in multiple countries.
Of course I’ve been thrilled with the way the film’s gotten out into the world. But mostly I’ve been enormously grateful. A little film like this doesn’t reach folks without massive word of mouth. Literally thousands of people told their friends about the movie and continue to talk it up to this day.
GoD: Have any specific directors or film-makers inspired you?
GP: My favorite directors are probably Billy Wilder, Howard Hawks, and Akira Kurosawa. I love the Marx Brothers and those Anthony Mann/Jimmy Stewart Westerns and anything Chuck Jones and Hayao Miyazaki ever touched. Jaws and Aliens and Bladerunner are some of my favorite modern classics. Blood of Heroes is my all-time fave B-movie.
GoD: Moving on to your comic work, tell us, how did you get in to writing comics? Was it the hard way, or do you have a rich uncle?
GP: My agent found out that Marvel was looking for writers. She sent over my screenplay for “Robot Stories,” which the editors apparently liked, because they called me in for some meetings and got me started developing some projects.
GoD: What was the first thing you ever worked on? Was it any good? Did we think it was any good?
GP: My first published work at Marvel was the “Warlock” miniseries, illustrated by the awesome Charlie Adlard. I’m still pretty darn proud of it — and the six or seven people who read it tell me it’s great!
GoD: From someone on the inside, without giving away any trade secrets, what did you think of Civil War?
GP: I thought it was great. Mark Millar’s one of my favorite comic book writers. He understands the big, goofy, fun ways that superhero comics work, and at the same time has the sharpness to work in the emotional and political tweaks that keep us interested, agitated, and involved.
GoD: What side would you have taken; Pro Registration or Anti?
GP: Anti all the way. I’m with Cap.
GoD: You’ve done a lot of Hulk work. Is he a favorite character of yours?
GP: I absolutely love the Hulk. He’s the character I most wanted to get my hands on when I came to Marvel. Part of the attraction is that the basic premise behind the Hulk is so simple — the angrier he gets, the stronger he gets. Sometimes when your central premise is so straightforward, it clears the air so that it’s possible to tell deeper and more sophisticated stories, tackling that central theme from all kinds of different angles.
GoD: I was always going to head towards asking you about World War Hulk. It wasn’t the sequel of Planet Hulk that many had hoped for, but there is rumor that it had to do with editorial changes forced upon you due to Civil War and Secret Invasion.
GP: From the very beginning, “World War Hulk” was always going to be the story of the Hulk returning to Earth to smash the puny humans who shot him into space. It comes directly out of “Planet Hulk” and carries through on the themes and the giant character arc for the Hulk that began on page one of “Planet Hulk.” As with any big comic event, plenty of the smaller details shifted around as we developed the story. But the overriding themes and major plot points came through just as they’d been planned from the beginning.
GoD: WWH may have gotten panned, but you’re definitely redeeming yourself in the eyes of Hulk fans with Skaar: Son of Hulk! Tell us how that came about? What are you enjoying most about writing that character?
GP: Panned, you say? Now, now! As Marvel’s big summer event of 2007, “World War Hulk” was a much bigger target than anything I’ve ever worked on before, so of course it got some knocks. But it got massive raves as well, including multiple “Book of the Week” taps from Wizard, and it sold like hotcakes, so I can’t complain.
But there were definitely folks who were sad to see the Hulk leave the world of “Planet Hulk,” so it’s been a tremendous blast to jump back into that milieu with “Skaar: Son of Hulk.” We’d been planning “Skaar” almost from the very beginning. Over three years ago, I realized there was a crazy opportunity to build a Son of Hulk story out of the climax of “Planet Hulk.” I pitched the idea to Hulk editor Mark Paniccia and Marvel Editor in Chief Joe Quesada, both of whom immediately loved it. And now our bouncing baby boy has finally made it out into the world.
It’s a big kick in the pants to create a brand new character like this from scratch. We’re taking our time revealing his history and powers and motivations, and I’m loving every step of the way. There are some giant revelations that we’re building up to that I can barely wait for.
GoD: What was it like working with John Romita Jr.?
GP: All of the artists I worked with during “Planet Hulk” and “World War Hulk” were amazing. Johnny, of course, is a living legend who was born to draw the Hulk smashing everyone in the Marvel Universe, so it was an absolute dream working with him on the book. I could literally see his pages in my head as I was writing.
GoD: Whose idea it was to change the Hulk book into the Incredible Hercules, and how long do they plan on keeping it that way?
GP: Fred Van Lente and I had pitched an ongoing series following the Renegades, the group of Marvel heroes (including Hercules, Amadeus Cho, Angel, and Namora) who’d been crazy enough to side with the Hulk during “World War Hulk.” At the time, the head honchos at Marvel decided there were too many team books launching. But then a few weeks later, they asked if Fred and I wanted to write a buddy book with Hercules and Amadeus. And we said heck, yeah! Since Jeph Loeb was relauching the Hulk with a new number one, the idea was to continue the “Incredible Hulk” as “Incredible Hercules.” It made sense — Amadeus and Herc had co-starred in “Incredible Hulk” throughout “World War Hulk,” so it wasn’t an insane leap to have them take the lead. And the crazy plan appears to have worked — “Incredible Hercules” appears to have carved out its own little niche (knock on wood), consistently selling even better than “Incredible Hulk” did during “Planet Hulk.” Issue #119 hits stores this month — and Fred and I are working on stories that extend at least another year. As long as folks keep buying it, we’ll keep writing it!
GoD: What other comic books, and beyond that, books, do you like to read?
GP: In the world of comics, I’m finally catching up on Garth Ennis’s “Punisher” run. Totally harrowing and wildly entertaining stuff.
But mostly these days I’m reading a lot of history and politics. I have a shelf full of Holocaust books for research for the “Magneto: Testament” miniseries I’m writing for editor Warren Simons. I’m always reading up on ancient mythology and history for “Incredible Hercules.” And I’ve been reading about more recent conflicts and wars around the world to help me think through some of the big themes behind “Skaar” and another super-secret project that’ll be announced soon.
GoD: What else are you working on, in addition to Magneto: Testament?
GP: I just turned in the script for a special Skaar one-shot called “Skaar: Son of Hulk Presents — Savage World of Sakaar” #1. I’m very excited about this book — we’re revealing some key backstories for Skaar, Princess Omaka, and Axeman Bone, including the shocking story of how the savage Son of Hulk got his tattoos. And any book with a few pages devoted to the Hulk’s doomed queen, Caiera the Oldstrong, is a big win!
I also have a few creator-owned stories coming out, including an eight pager called “Rio Chino” about a Chinese gunslinger in the Old West, which will be part of the “Outlaw Territory” Western anthology book coming in the fall.
My thanks to Greg Pak for his cooperation on this our latest interview. It was a real treat to speak to him, and to get a look in to the man behind so many great Hulk stories. If you want to find out more about the man, or just keep up to date with the latest news, check out his website at PakBuzz.com.