Cybershadow caught up with Troy Hickman recently. Just who is Troy Hickman and what’s he got to do with City of Heroes? He’s the critically-acclaimed and fan-loved writer and creator of Common Grounds, one of the best slice-of-life comics this side of a number 2 pencil. In addition, he’s a teacher, a very funny man, and an regular player of City of Heroes. And it just so happens that Troy is the writer for the second story arc of Top Cow’s City of Heroes comic, out this August.

Coh.Warcry: Nice to catch up to you, Mr. Hickman. It’s a real pleasure to meet you.

Troy Hickman: Well, it’s nice to be here. I hope I say something that’s lucid. Of course, what are the odds?

CW: One in a million but then a woman did win the lotto twice in a week. For those that don’t know who you are, why don’t you introduce yourself and tell us about some of the work you’ve done and are doing.

TH: Well, let’s see… I started doing comics around 1991. Self-publishing my own little digest comics. I photocopied ’em, folded and stapled them – various titles, such as Yoyo the Dieting Clown, Made-Up Stuff is Stranger than Fiction, Tales of the Pathetic Club, etc. I would take them around to conventions and sell them through mail order. And though they were critically very well-received, only a few hundred folks would generally see any particular issue.

Then in 1994, I came up with an idea for a superhero book – Holey Crullers – it was about a chain of donut shops that catered to superheroes and villains. It was mainly a ‘talking heads’ kind of comic, almost all characterization and no action, which sounds like a recipe for failure. [laughs] But folks seemed to like it.

Then in 1997, Jim McLauchlin from Wizard was passing my table at the Chicago convention and liked the title Holey Crullers, so he picked it up. Ended up loving it and so Wizard did a long article on my little mini-comic.

Flash forward to 2003. Jim takes over the helm at Top Cow and within the first two weeks he’s there, he contacts me about taking my Holey Crullers scripts and having them redrawn for a new comic.

We hash out the details and by January of 2004, Common Grounds hits the stands, with stories by me and artwork by Dan Jurgens, George Perez, Sam Kieth, Carlos Pacheco, Ethan Van Sciver, Chris Bachalo, Mike Oeming, Angel Medina, and Rodolfo Migliari…

It’s done very well for me. Critics have dug it, fans love it, and it’s up for a couple of Eisner Awards this year.

CW: Very much so. It’s certainly not your average comic book of any variety. I enjoyed the issue with the giant monsters and the newbie truck driver.

TH: Yeah, that story is up for Best Short Story. I grew up with the Marvel monster stories. Googam rules!

CW: Indeed he does. Speaking of being widely loved, why do you think everyone digs it? The premise, the stories, the writers’ scintalating wit and humour?

TH: Ha. well, I think it’s a combination of things. I think the premise is strong and it originally came about at a time when there were few ‘superhero down time’ books around. In the interim years, a lot more have sprung up. It’s probably also because it’s a very different type of superhero comic. I tried to make it the exact, Bizarro-World opposite of the way capes-and-tights books are usually done. So, for example, since you never see heroes in the bathroom, I set a 13-page story entirely in the john, with superhero Mental Midget and supervillain Man-Witch in adjoining stalls, and let them talk it out… but without sinking into a lot of scat humor.

CW: God, I loved that story too.

TH: And my part in it all? Well, I don’t know, I like to think that maybe I bring something to the equation. I know I have a good ear for dialogue, and I think I’m able to straddle the line between comedy and drama fairly well.

CW: Fair enough. So how did you develop your writing style? Was it Golden Age writers and characters, Silver Age? Classical literature? Were you just a big superhero fan that wrote stories instead of homework?

TH: I guess a little of each. I’ve been reading comics since I was three (and let’s just say that was a loooonnnng time ago and leave it at that). I grew up on Golden and Silver Age stuff, and it’s certainly affected the way I write superhero comics. I’m not a grim and gritty, anti-hero sort of writer (though I can do that sort of thing too, if I choose). As we speak, I’m sitting here next to something like 22,000 comics, so I’m definitely a fanboy at heart. I think I also bring elements of fiction writing to the mix, though. I have a Master’s in Creative Writing and a BA in English (and I teach those subjects at a college here), so I’m no stranger to that realm. I’m primarily a short story kind of guy who happens to love the comics medium. And these days, I think maybe it’s nice to have folks in the industry who can tell a complete story in a few pages.

CW: So no epic 12-issue maxi-series with multiple crossovers to get the whole story, huh?

TH: Hey, I’d love to do a maxi-series. But that’s not the only kind of story. some stories only need ten pages, y’know?

CW: You mentioned that you teach at a college. How do your students respond to your growing fame and recognition? It must be fairly interesting, on both sides.

TH: They stand on their desks and call out “Oh, captain, my captain!”

No, not really – not yet at least – [harumph] but I do have a lot of students come up to me with copies of my stuff asking to get it signed. I appreciate that kind of shameless brown-nosing.

CW: Good for the grades and the ego.

TH: And the sales. Never forget the sales.

CW: That too. The super power of sales. So how did the project of writing a story arc for the City of Heroes comic book come to you?

TH: Well, Jim McLauchlin sent out a note saying that after Mark Waid’s arc in CoH #1-3, they would need folks for subsequent issues. And given what it is that I supposedly do well, ha, and the fact that I’m a regular CoH player, I got hold of him and said I would beg, borrow, and steal to get a shot at it.

CW: I’m sure fans will love to know you play COH regularly and can hope of some day running into you. Can I get you to reveal your favourite archetype and powers?

TH: Truth be told, I really enjoy them all. I haven’t gotten around to playing every possible combination yet, though I’m working on it. I have a tendency to jump around from character to character a lot, so at this point none of mine are more than 25th level or thereabouts. At the moment I’m playing The Ghost of Mrs. Muir, a dark/psych defender (boo!), NightNurseTnA, an emp/dark defender, and Midwestern Sort, an earth/storm controller, but I’ve played tankers and blasters and scrappers, as well.

CW: Back to your story arc, once you actually had to sit down and start writing for the comic, what was your take on the setting and the major characters?

TH: I guess I looked at it in terms of writing a compelling story, and bringing what I could to the characters. The Freedom Phalanx didn’t really have much in the way of a comic book history to draw from, so I had to ask myself ‘if they had been featured in a regular series for a number of years, what would these characters be like?’

It’s really a tough job, since I want to be as true to the history and nature of the characters as possible, while still putting a little of myself and what I do into the tale.

CW: I’ll bet the prospect of every part of the story being gone over with a fine tooth comb by the City of Heroes community wasn’t helpful either. what kind of story you end up going with? A more action oriented story or something more like Common Grounds where we get to see the Freedom Phalanx outside of the tights? A sort of story that helps build up some of that comic book history.

TH: Well, I guess it’s not an either/or proposition. I tried to write a story that has plenty of superpowered action, as that’s one of the things CoH fans dig about the game. But at the same time, I really tried to make it about the characters. If there’s one recurring theme in my superhero work, it’s that the hero side of ‘superhero’ comes from the humanity of the character and that doesn’t mean they act in a less than heroic way. It just means that they act and talk and feel like human beings do but they still strive to do what’s right and be the best they can be. I don’t know if that sounds too Pollyanna-ish for some folks but it’s something I sincerely believe.

And yeah, I expect the fans will go over it with a fine-toothed comb. But you can’t really expect anything else. Hey, I’m a big fan of Ultra the Multi-Alien from silver age DC continuity (hey, don’t laugh!), and if someone does a story with him, you can bet I want him done right. I would expect nothing less from the CoH fans.

CW: Not to mention their real-life counterparts can always call you up and set you straight.

TH: Ha. Yeah. And I hear from a lot of people. Thank goodness it’s usually good stuff.

CW: Did any particular character really stand out for you as you were writing the story arc?

TH: Well, I guess they all did in their own way. Synapse has been really fun to write because he’s the guy from down the street if he had superpowers. There’s a certain humor and casualness to him that’s appealing. I really like the relationship between him and Positron. Statesman is a challenge because he’s so iconic in nature, so I had to find ways to accentuate his personality without getting too ‘street-level’. Manticore is just a great character – so many ways you can go with him. I’ve really been having a blast with all the characters.

CW: Did Cryptic Studioes have any major requirements or did they let you do pretty much whatever you wanted with the setting and characters?

TH: Cryptic has very much been in the loop on everything, but really their main concern is that the characters be true to the game and portrayed with the respect they deserve. As I’ve said, I play CoH regularly, but I’m hardly a scholar on it, and that’s where Sean Fish [Manticore, voice of Captain Mako, Cryptic IP manager – Ed.] has come in. The guy is an encyclopedia and has been invaluable. But no, I’m very much writing the kind of story I want to write.

CW: Any hints as the story itself? A little teaser perhaps?

TH: Ha! Surprise is all I’ve got! Well, I can tell you what’s already been listed in the Previews solicitations, which is that the story involves the Circle of Thorns and well, magical stuff!

GW: Maybe why MAGI is always having things stolen out of its vault? That’s surely an epic story arc right there.

TH: Hey, I lose half my socks every time I do the laundry, I can’t cast stones here.

GW: I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that I hope you will be a regular contributor for the comic book. Can we expect more out of you for Paragon City? And what about Common Grounds? What can we expect from that title in the future? Any teasers you want to drop for that?

TH: Gosh, I don’t know. I certainly would love more opportunities to write CoH. I guess that will be up to the folks who make those decisions. I know that Dan Jurgens is writing #7-9, so that should be very cool. Beyond that, I’m not sure. But anytime they could use a scripter for the book, I’m on it like green on a Troll.

I don’t know about Common Grounds yet. The trade paperback collection is selling well, and apparently KEEPS selling. And the Eisner nominations are certainly getting the word out, too. So I wouldn’t be surprised if we took a trip back there sometime soon.

GW: It would be good to have another trip there for my favourite donut shop.

TH: Yeah, I miss it. Even though there were only half a dozen issues so far, it’s really become a part of me, y’know? And it’s certainly changed my life in a lot of wonderful ways.

GW: It’s certainly given my a fresh and humourous perspective one some of the aspects of superhero life. I’ve enjoyed the series immensely. Any final thoughts you’d like to share? Stuff to pitch, names to drop, people to laugh at, old nemesis to taunt…

TH: No, I haven’t bought Taunt yet. I guess I’d just like to say that I’m really enjoying the work on CoH, and that I hope everyone else does, too. And I trust that they’ll drop me an email and let me know what they think. Also, if I’m on your team in the game, and I do something stupid that causes you debt, don’t hate me too much!

GW: Thank you very much, Mr. Hickman for taking the time to talk to us. We here at Coh.Warcry wish you the best and hope we can chat again soon. Don’t forget the level 1s when you’re all big and famous and chatting with the likes of Miller and Gaimen.

Once again, we would like to thank Mr. Hickman for the interview. Issues and trade paperbacks of Common Grounds are available at your local comic shop. Fans wishing to send Mr. Hickman an message may send him an email at [email protected] or leave a private message on the City of Heroes forums (Troy_Hickman).

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