It had been a while, but Stephen Skeates remembers going to San Diego’s Comic-Con International, the largest comic book fan convention in the U.S.? That was in 1984, when he says it was “more about comic books.”
But nothing prepared him for what he saw in July, when he and his wife made the trip to California.?“This was insane,” he said. “It was so crowded with people in costumes that the convention was overflowing.”?
Skeates, 69, was given the Bill Finger Award for Excellence in Comic Book Writing — an annual award named after the co-creator of Batman that’s given to two people who have helped pave the way for other comic book writers.? The convention was a great time to reunite with old colleagues and meet eager young fans asking for his autograph.
But after a while, enough was enough.?“We just split and went to the beach,” said Skeates.
Getting his start?
What makes comic books different from other literature? He says it takes the best parts of different media and combines them.
?“It’s its own type of medium, which falls between movies, novels, and old radio shows,” Skeates explained. “It’s got elements of those three together if you do it right.”?
He first started to write comic fiction at a time when comic books were making a comeback in the mid-1960s. ?An English major at Alfred University, he expected to take a job reporting for a newspaper. When he realized this didn’t interest him, he applied to several comic book companies.?
Then one day, he got a phone call from the legendary comic creator Stan Lee, who offered Skeates a position as his editing assistant at Marvel Comics. ?He then moved to New York City, the comic book capital of the world at the time, to take the job in 1965.
?His work consisted of proofreading finished comics, which he soon began to hate. He recalls Lee’s frustration when he could find small grammatical mistakes while missing more obvious ones, like the way stripes on a character’s tie were pointing in the wrong direction.
After less than two weeks, Skeates quit, and was replaced by Roy Thomas.?
He stayed on writing westerns for Marvel, including “Kid Colt: Outlaw” and “Two Gun Kid.” His career took off as he began writing for DC Comics, and then Tower Comics, a company based in the Empire State Building.
?During this time, he learned two different approaches to crafting a good story. At Marvel, he was forced to write dialogue for characters based on pictures created by an artist. It was the other way around at DC, where writers would produce a script that dictated the drawings.?
Page 2 of 3 - Skeates preferred the freedom of the latter, but says he felt the most freedom as a writer while working at Charlton Comics.
?“I would just come up with an idea and sit down at a typewriter. They never turned down a single script of mine,” he said. “I enjoyed it because you didn’t overwork the story before you started writing it.”?
He stuck around despite the poor pay. It was during that time that Skeates wrote for characters like Thane of Bagarth, Kid Montana, Abbott and Costello, and Sarge Steel.?
“I think I had my most fun writing there,” he said.
Keeping it light?
As a kid growing up in Fairport, Skeates was never a big fan of superhero comics — instead opting for more funny animal comics. He later grew to love the parody stories in “MAD” when he was a teenager, before it went from a comic book to a magazine.?
His stroke of humor followed him throughout his career as he became the primary writer for characters like DC’s Aquaman (one of his favorite characters as a child).
He also wrote many of the plots for Plastic Man, whose superpower is super stretchability.?In the ’70s, Skeates created a villain named Carrot Man, an evil game show host who hit contestants on the head with a toaster. The villain did appear in an animated TV series about Plastic Man.
While Skeates did not receive any royalties for the character, the show’s creators tried to make good by changing Carrot Man’s true identity to Stephen Skeates .?He recalls, “People stopped me on the street and said, ‘You were on TV!’"
?His career at DC lasted for many years, during which he wrote for sagas for Superman, The Flash, The Hawk and the Dove, Supergirl, and many more. During that time, Skeates never wanted to write for one DC’s most popular characters, Batman, saying he “never warmed up” to the character.?
“He’s set in a film noire world, but if you’re going to do film noire, do a private eye. Not somebody who’s running around in his long underwear.”
A timeless art form?
Comic books are transitioning into the digital age, and veterans like Skeates are moving with it. After New York City lost its dominance in the comic world, the medium spread across the country.?
Fewer hard copies of comics are produced today, and many superheroes are known better for their appearance in Hollywood blockbusters than their presence on the pages of a serial.
?“Now, they’re doing away with thought balloons and captions and just going with dialogue to be more like the movies,” said Skeates.
Page 3 of 3 - ?He has recently written a series of online strip comics for Suprising Comics and is currently working on “The Knight Watchman,” a project backed by Big Bang Comics that is anticipated for release later this year.?
No matter what the medium, he explained that one thing still hasn’t changed.
?“I gravitate more toward any company that will still let me write.”