In 1983, a brand-new fantasy hero soared into the DC Universe, headlining a twelve-issue maxiseries targeted at young female readers: “Amethyst, Princess Of Gemworld.” Created by writers Dan Mishkin and Gary Cohn with art by Ernie ColÃ³n, “Amethyst” told the story of thirteen-year-old Amy Winston who discovers she’s actually a magic-wielding princess from another world. Using her powers to transform into an adult woman, Amy, as Amethyst, leads a rebellion against evil overlord Dark Opal, later returning to save Gemworld again during the subsequent sixteen-issue ongoing series and subsequent mini and one-shots, along the way discovering her place as one of the Lords of Order.
Twenty-odd years later, Amethyst has returned to the forefront of DC readers’ minds thanks to the recently announced “Showcase Presents: Amethyst, Princess Of Gemworld” trade paperback collection of the original series, the new DC Nation animated short and writer Christy Marx’s reboot of the character for the anthology “Sword Of Sorcery.” While many fans are excited to see Amethyst getting such attention, others have reservations about her New 52 treatment — including her creators.
While Cohn declined to speak with CBR News, saying only, “I really don’t have anything to say about Amethyst that I haven’t said many times before, except maybe, R.I.P.,” co-creator Mishkin spoke frankly and honestly about the character, from his mixed feelings on the “Sword Of Sorcery” character reboot to the triumphs and disappointments working on the original series.
CBR News: Before we get into what’s going on with Amethyst now, let’s go back in time to the beginning. What was the genesis of “Amethyst?”
Dan Mishkin: Both in the case of “Amethyst” and “Blue Devil,” we were asked if we could come up with an ongoing series for one of DC’s anthology titles, the same way “I, Vampire” was showing up in “House of Mystery” — and Gary and I wrote that for a while. Dave Manak, who was an editor at the time, asked us, so it was really just being given an opportunity to create something new. I don’t remember anything before the time we named the character — we were tentatively referring to the character [as] Changeling, with the classical fairytale notion of a goblin child put in place of a human child in the crib as opposed to shape shifter. I think even on the first page of the first issue of “Amethyst” we end up being pretty bald-faced about it, saying this is an old story about a child who dreams there might be something different, something special about them. It’s a lot of stories: you discover your secret past and destiny and the challenge is to live up to it. The challenge for the writer is to dress it up as something new!
I do remember standing one afternoon in my kitchen after Gary and I had been talking about how Changeling is not going to work — I think they were calling Beast Boy Changeling then. I was leaning there on my chest freezer and the word “Amethyst” just came into my head. The next thing I thought was “Gemworld,” and the next thing I did was call Gary. We mapped it out, what is this world, what are the different houses? Of course you end up doing it around birthstones and gemstones, and you have evil, you have good, different emotional states coming out of the gems.
We worked through our proposal, we talked about what artist we might want — and I said I liked this Ernie ColÃ³n. A few years earlier for the company Atlas, he had done the “Grim Ghost,” which is now being revived. I really was captivated by Ernie’s style. He was interested, we did a lot of talking and somewhere in that process, we were informed that what they really thought they should do was give this its own book. That might have been [DC Publisher and President] Jenette Kahn who was, I think, actively interested in female stuff at DC. I wrote “Wonder Woman” for a few years around that period and I know Jenette was very much into having female heroes. So they said, “Do Amethyst as a series, but do it in twelve issues and you’re finished, because while we want to try this fantasy hero” — I don’t think they said they didn’t expect it to sell, but in my opinion there was no good reason to do it as its own book because that’s not the kind of comic they were selling. Twelve issues was fine with us. We were ready to make our story compact and not go off on tangents. We regretted the occasion when we had really cool things we couldn’t explore, but we did it and that was the genesis of it!
DC just announced it’s releasing a trade paperback of your original run. How long have you guys been trying to get a collection released?
Oh, gosh — I have been mentioning it to Karen Berger since pretty soon after we finished writing the series! [Laughs] It seemed like a good idea! The first maxiseries they did was “Camelot 3000” and we were the second, though we were the first one to actually complete twelve issues — I don’t mean to disparage [writer] Mike Barr or [artist] Brian Bolland by saying that, they did great stuff. The fact that “Camelot” got that pretty paperback treatment and we didn’t — I didn’t know why, it just kind of was the way it was. It might have had something to do with some of the disappointment over pursuing a toy deal with Amethyst that never took off. Everybody felt like we hadn’t gotten what we had wanted.
In many ways, I wish we had just stopped at the maxiseries and never talked about toys or an ongoing series and had just had those twelve issues to look back on and say, “Yeah, good solid work.” I think the fact that there’s the short animated bits on Cartoon Network probably finally prompted DC to do the collection now; the fact that they knew, but we didn’t know, they were going to have a new Amethyst series coming out may have been part of their decision as well. I’ll be happy to see [the collection], even though it’s going to be in black and white — which doesn’t seem right for Amethyst — but it’s a way of getting it out. I am pleased that the collection only features the stories Gary and I wrote, not things that were done by other people, later.
You mentioned there was a toy line and plans for Amethyst that got lost in the works that kept the story going. Why do you feel it would have been better for you as creators to have ended at twelve issues?
Having the toy idea and extra money for us thrown at us was fine. The fact that you had the potential disappointment of not having the money come, that’s OK too. It was really, for me, the business/creative decision that flowed from that. We’re working halfway through the maxiseries when what we’re basically told is [toy company] Kenner is really interested in this character and property for a line of toys, and we can’t not have the character being published while they’re considering making toys. So the entire impetus for following up the maxiseries with an ongoing series was to keep the published property out there while DC was courting a toy company.
That’s problematic. We had only been told months earlier that we had twelve issues to get it right, and that’s all we’re going to get. To change direction was difficult. We planted seeds in the second half of the maxiseries to help us get to the ongoing, but it wasn’t a creative decision. It was a business decision, and I’m sure a sensible one on DC’s part, but I was never happy with the ongoing series. I liked [the following Amethyst writers’] work, but it just didn’t seem to flow as well as it should have from what we were setting out to do in the original series. I had other work and was feeling somewhat unhappy with it, so I decided I would leave it in Gary’s hands. I left after, I think, eight issues, and Gary ended up writing a few more. But it wasn’t satisfying, it felt too cobbled together to me — which is understandable, given the time pressures we were suddenly working under. I would have been happier if that series hadn’t appeared. I never returned the money from the paychecks, but I would have been happier if it hadn’t appeared. [Laughs]
How do you feel about DC resurrecting the character and property now, in “Sword Of Sorcery?”
I had a whole mess of feelings, and while having those feelings trying to hold onto the rational side of me that understands what this business is all about. It is about telling great stories through words and pictures and that impulse, but it’s also about exploiting your characters. I mean that not pejoratively; I mean making use of your catalog of characters for sound business reasons as well as good creative reasons. That means, and has always meant, that people who create these great properties don’t end up being the first person asked to do the revival. God knows Gary and Ernie and I have a much better contractual relationship with DC over “Amethyst” than many of our predecessors had over their creations. Paul Levitz, with Jenette and Dave I’m sure, too, instituted a creator participation deal that was really tremendously progressive for what had gone on before. So Ernie and Gary and I will receive twenty percent of whatever DC takes in on ancillary stuff, any licensed “Amethyst” stuff. That’s not a bad deal; if there’s any TV or movie, we get money. What we don’t get is creative control. We made that decision with our eyes wide open, but it was hard to know what that was going to feel like.
It doesn’t feel great. It doesn’t feel great to see our characters handled in ways that don’t seem true to what we were intending to do. I’ve really been trying to adopt a “don’t hate the player, hate the game” approach, and I don’t even hate the game! I can be unhappy about it; I can be disappointed. It’s never been a thrill to have a writer say to me, “I would love to write Amethyst,” or “I would love to write Blue Devil,” as if I must be dead or something. I would like to write them too — in fact, I created them! But this is the business. I shudder to think what my attitude was when I was first writing comics and working on characters created by other people with this cavalier assumption that I knew better than anyone what this character was all about. The difference with Gary and me is we moved very quickly to creating our own stuff because there was that moment in the early ’80s when DC was open to that.
Would I like to be writing “Amethyst?” Sure. Would I like DC, if they’re going to do this character they’ve announced, to do it with a completely new concept that doesn’t trade on stuff Gary and Ernie and I created? Sure. But that’s not going to happen. I would even say that this new Amethyst might be pretty successful; in fact I imagine that it will. I’ve enjoyed some of Christy Marx’s stuff, I remember years ago really liking “Sisterhood Of Steel,” I really like Aaron Lopresti’s art, so I think they are going to be successful.
I also think what they’re setting out to do isn’t worth doing. My understanding is going to be this is going to be a seventeen-year-old Amy Winston who discovers that she’s Amethyst and that she’s had a pretty rough life in those seventeen years. You can do that, and because of the rules of the game you can even call it Amethyst. But to say that it’s essentially the same as what we did — I’m sorry, I just don’t think that’s true, because essentially what we did was a story about being on the cusp of adolescence and discovering what the moral choices of adulthood are going to be. You don’t do that at seventeen; you do that at twelve or thirteen.
And by the way, Amy grew up in a perfectly happy household and there’s not reason she shouldn’t have. You can do the Harry Potter version raised by the Dursleys, but I have a room in my house that’s a shrine to Superman and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a happy childhood, like being raised by Jonathan and Martha Kent. That’s how you get to be Superman — not by being from Krypton, but by having those parents. Amy succeeds as Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld because, even though at first she has to lie and equivocate to her parents, they raised her right. It’s not the only basis for acting heroically, I understand that, but that’s who Amethyst is. This other character called Amethyst is pretty different — well, let them do that. Just don’t tell me you’re doing the same character.
Right now there’s a lot of talk of creator moral rights because of things like “Before Watchmen.” As you said, you knew you would be signing away creative control, but was the whole creator moral rights topic something you were paying attention to because it touches on how you guys feel on Amethyst?
I’m interested in seeing how it plays out, and I understand it can be awfully complex. The Gary Friedrich thing with Ghost Rider, the Alan Moore issue with “Watchmen” — I understand their angst and I understand how the business looks at it. Gary Friedrich got a lot of support from people, but you saw a lot of pushback online saying he didn’t do that, he didn’t do this. There’s a difference between being Gary Friedrich or even Dan Mishkin on the one hand, and being Alan Moore on the other where Moore gets a little more of the shared indignation of people who say, “He created that stuff, he’s being done dirty.” Where I think other people felt it was easier to say, “Gary Friedrich, he was a guy who was just writing this stuff.”
There’s a real tendency anyway in our culture to put down comics — so I think we who are in comics shouldn’t be doing that. I think that we should be saying, “Gary Friedrich, Alan Moore, whatever the moral rights are, it’s the same thing. This is a creative person doing creative work who needs to be respected.” I was actually having a conversation with a friend who is an intellectual property lawyer, and he was bringing up this whole moral rights thing. In the US, not in Europe, the legal concept of moral rights is limited to fine art by Congress. That means that if somebody messed around with Roy Lichtenstein’s paintings, he could sue them, but the people whose work he lifted from comic strips couldn’t sue him. I have a problem with Lichtenstein because I’m a comics guy. I do understand he was doing transformative stuff, but what bugs me is the thing I was saying before, that there seems to be the implication that what those comic strip hacks were doing was non-art. That’s why I want to put Alan Moore and Gary Friedrich on equal footing. [But] it’s difficult to tease out these different elements in different situations. When it comes to what I have, I both recognize DC’s rights and I express my disappointment. Those can co-exist.
On a personal level, what would you want to happen with Amethyst? Is this something you wish DC would leave alone, or do you want mainstream success for it, but you want audiences to get ahold of your version versus somebody else’s?
Well, sort of the latter. I should say I’m enormously excited about the Cartoon Network version of Amethyst. I talked with Brianne Drouhard who is intimately involved with that project, and she is clearly on the same wavelength of what we were doing with the original series. I would be less happy if she were a comic book writer who was doing our version of Amethyst in comics. I would like to be the person who does that, Gary and me. Truthfully, about the not being asked to do it, in this case Dan DiDio shouldn’t ask me to do the current Amethyst. He knows very well I would not write that version of Amethyst. Why would he ask me? That’s another case where I understand what’s going on, but I would prefer that they not do it. Even if it’s a smart, moneymaking proposition, from the point of view of how I feel about my creation, it’s ill-conceived.
I would love to have the wider world see the Amethyst Gary and Ernie and I created. They’ll see something like that with Brianne’s work on Cartoon Network. They would have seen something like that if Kenner had made those toys. I’m sorry that nobody can see this wonderful piece of illustration that Charlie Vess did for the presentation to Kenner. It was great — he did beautiful fantasy illustrations of these characters. The beauty, the majesty, the wonder of it, not the stuff that’s about bitterness — there’s a place for those stories, but by and large they’re not my stories, and I’d like people to know my stories.
What is at the heart of your Amethyst stories versus what you’re seeing?
I think I should say many, many of my stories, the heroic fiction stuff, the superheroes that I wrote to one extent or another, were all about something that isn’t seen much in mainstream comics now. Let me put it this way: People look at superheroes and they say, “Power fantasy.” What you see in a lot of comics is an exploration of power fantasies and embittered things; stories about heroes are often about the failure, maybe even the impossibility to living up to the greatest ideas of heroism. My stories, “Amethyst” included, tend to also be power fantasies, but the fantasy is, “What choices would I have to make if I had power? Will I be able to rise to the demands placed on me?”
When I look at “Amethyst” and the superhero comics I wrote earlier in my career, they primarily are fun, entertaining. They hopefully make you squeal with delight, but at the heart, they are for young people who need to have a rehearsal for adulthood. They are trying on the clothes of an adult. When you are a ten-year-old reading “Superman,” you should be getting insight into who you might be, what choices you might make when you have adult power. It’s not the magic, it’s not the super strength, it’s the power of adulthood. It’s definitely at the heart of Amethyst. In addition, like “Harry Potter” it’s about self-discovery in a very positive way, not in discovering everybody in my childhood has lied to me — there’s a place for that too, but the core of Amethyst is a journey of self-discovery and living up to sudden demands placed upon you. Certainly, I imagine there will be stories in the new series that wander around the issues, but for us it was at the center.
Which goes along with the idea of the age transformation.
Right, very much it literalizes that; although it also has to do with the fact that I loved “The Fly” as a kid! We’re talking about the early ’60s [Red Circle Comics] “The Fly.” Little Tommy, in the first issue, finds this ring, and by rubbing it he becomes an adult. Of course, Billy Batson becomes Captain Marvel, but “The Fly” was my introduction to that concept. I really liked it because some part of me knew how important that theme was. I had a perfectly good childhood in a lot of ways, but I wanted to be a person whose actions had consequences, so going from being a child to an adult is important to Amethyst. I should say, unlike earlier comics, we played a little more with the idea that she’s still a kid inside, even when she’s a young woman. When people ask me, “Why didn’t she ever have that romance with Prince Topaz?” that was a real head scratcher for me, because the answer is, “Because she’s thirteen years old!”
[Laughs] So this was another way of thinking about consequences. Amethyst is not happy being thought of as someone who should be the royal ruler of her world. She’s an American kid who believes in democracy and elections. That creates disconnect for her as well. She doesn’t buy into every piece of this.
To end, what do you ultimately want to say about the character and your feelings on what DC is doing?
I should say I’m not angry at anybody with the new series. I have my own emotional responses and my own feelings about what would happen in the world — but hey, we all have that in all sorts of ways. I certainly wish DC well, I am incredibly eager to see the Cartoon Network stuff and I’m eager to move forward in this part of my writing career. I finally stopped a while back trying to figure out how to insert myself into the DC/Marvel world, which was moving pretty far away from the type of stories I want to tell. So now I’m in a place where I’m very happy telling the sort of stories I like to tell. And I want to mention that people should check out what we’re doing with Kids Read Comics [a convention co-organized by Mishkin]. There’s a really huge kids’ comics movement that is often invisible to the people who only are looking at the superhero world. There’s some tremendously creative people in bookstores and libraries, online, in multiple formats bubbling up all over the place. The fact that San Diego Comic-Con is pushing for a significantly more children’s programming, especially on Sunday, this is a sign that something really wonderful is happening in comics. I’m just so glad to see what’s going on with kid’s comics, and people can take a look and see what we’re doing there.
“Showcase Presents: Amethyst, Princess Of Gemworld” trade paperback releases September 19 in black and white; “Sword Of Sorcery” issue #0 also hits shelves September 19.