About half an hour before the Thursday morning DC writers panel at Comic-Con International in San Diego began, James Robinson and Gail Simone arrived on stage. Their conversation could just be heard as he looked over the crowd and said to Gail “I didn’t think there’d be anyone here…” How wrong he was. For an hour, the room had been packed with an expectant audience, patiently waiting to hear the luminaries of the DC Comics writing force talk at one of the first sessions of the 2010 Comic-Con. Soon after, J.M Straczynski arrived with coffee for everyone, and after a brief confab, things were ready to kick off as James Robinson took the chair to introduce his fellow DC writers.
First Robinson introduced J. Michael Straczynski, mentioning his work on “Thor,” “Spider-Man,” “Wonder Woman” and “The Brave and the Bold,” He joked that Straczynski “has taken over from this hack doing ‘Superman,'” which elicited a few laughs. Next up was Judd Winick. Robinson noted his work on TV, “Green Lantern,” “Outsiders,” “Batman,” “Green Arrow,” bringing back Jason Todd, the current “Red Hood” miniseries as well as “Justice League: Generation Lost,” one of the “Brightest Day” titles. Joining them was the early-arriving Gail Simone, a prolific DC and Wildstorm writer. Robinson noted her work on “Wonder Woman,” “Secret Six” and “Birds of Prey.”
Robinson next made sure to note the legendary Denny O’Neil, and his work as an editor of “Batman” and on “Green Lantern” in the ’70’s, when he was reinventing comic books (with Neal Adams and other artists) as darker and more intelligent.
Finally, Paul Levitz was introduced, who Robinson called “Mister DC,” since he began working at DC at only 16 years old, when he interned and worked his way up to being the president of DC. Robinson noted Levitz’s work on “Justice Society,” “All-Star Comics,” “Starman” and “Legion of Super-Heroes.”
The panel was purely about being a DC writer. As an aside, Robinson said that “DC Writers Unite!” sounded like some kind of battle cry, as if they were about to go and attack Marvel. He painted a vivid picture of the non-violence that would ensue “It would be like ‘West Side Story,’ I think, with lots of high kicks and jazz hands.” And with that, the giggling crowd was warmed up and relaxed enough to bathe in the collected knowledge of the assembled comic book writers.
Robinson began by wondering simply what it is that is singular and unique about the experience of working for DC.
Of course, Robinson immediately noted the great characters, and while acknowledging that he has enjoyed working for Marvel, his main point was that “I’ve personally always enjoyed a really good relationship with my editors, and…that is something that I treasure about working at DC.”
Denny O’Neil noted the “revolving door” policy of ’70’s and ’80’s, when they all put in time at both of the Big Two. He talked about the days when he heard guys at Marvel talk about a responsibility to maintain the legacy of Stan Lee and Jack. His experience at DC was that it was liberating, because he “could write the story the way it wanted to be written. I was very fortunate with editors. I worked with Julius Schwartz for 20 years. His ego never got between you and the job.”
Robinson then specifically asked J. Michael Straczynski about the large body of work that he’s done, mostly at Marvel and how it feels to work at DC now. Straczynski was careful not to compare companies, cleverly adding, “I come here not to praise Caesar.” His personal feelings that the stories are more fantasy oriented at Marvel, whereas DC characters are more science fiction based. He talked about the internal frat house feeling at Marvel versus the more structured feeling of working at DC.
Quickly chiming in, Gail acknowledged how much she had enjoyed working at Marvel on titles like “Deadpool,” where, “they let me push the envelope a lot with the kind of wacky/dark humor.” But the opportunity to write “Birds of Prey” was something she couldn’t pass up. “It was a chance for me to prove that we could have a book with female lead characters that didn’t fight with each other, didn’t fight over boyfriends, didn’t have to have the bitch fights…and make it a successful book and fun stories about sexy women without all the baggage from before. DC have always supported a diverse cast of characters and that’s what I want to work in.”
Robinson spoke up once more and talked about his love of the DC characters, “It’s these characters that make us want to write them.” As wonderful as Superman, Batman or Wonder Woman are, he asked, what it is about the more obscure characters that keeps DC writers going?
Paul Levitz made the point that there are two different types of opportunities. First, when dealing with Superman, Batman or Wonder Woman, writers are dealing with “the classic tropes…the characters on which DC was built.” He questioned how a writer can deal with stories that are “literally folklore…there’s incredible resonance, when you get it right, which is sometimes it’s incredibly difficult to do.” At the other end of the spectrum are characters like the Legion of Super-Heroes and Secret Six who are “complex sets of characters who’s lives can be screwed with totally. I’m god, and I get to fuck up their lives. That’s a joyous power to have as a writer.”
Straczynski added that dealing with a character who isn’t as well known means that, as a writer, you can do what you like and make it your own. That that was the exciting part – the challenge becomes to make readers care about a character that most people might have heard of.
Winick talked about “standing on the shoulders of giants” when writing the big three, in that they have such a rich history but cannot change that much. As a writer, he said he feels he can only take those characters so far without a lot of meetings and planning. Unfortunately, the lesser known/used characters are often very dated, specifically because they have been forgotten. Winnick’s favorite example of this was a character called the Tattooed Man that he re-introduced in “The Outsiders,” a sort of sailor character who could touch a tattoo and bring it to life who they made more interesting by stripping him down, bulking him up, shaving his head, and putting tribal tattoos on him. “When we were done, he’s looking not unlike Brian Azzarello stripped to the waist. He looked cool, he looked tough and he looked scary, as Brian can, on occasion (in a nice way). At his barest essence there’s a cool character there…It’s hard to find characters who might have come out of a trend 50 years ago, but most of them have something there that is sparkling and incredible.”
Next Robinson asked how writers feel leaving a book. Knowing that when a small character is developed, they can suddenly go in a different direction when a new writer takes over.
Levitz talked of Shvaughn Erin, a female science police officer character he created in “Legion of Super-Heroes,” who following writers changed, saying that she was a man who had used a transgender chemical “which was not exactly the view of the personality that I had had there.” Despite interesting incidents such as this, he was very clear that, “The reason the field is as fertile as it is, is all the work that has been put in for so long. These are such incredibly rich worlds and you get the chance to play in them. The only reason that somebody cares about the character that you’ve added to…is because you planted it in this field that was already full of all this rich material surrounding it that gave it power and gave it grace.” Apparently, while it might be strange for Levitz when people bring back his characters from years ago, the fact that people remember them enough to do so and continue to build on the characters transcends everything.
Gail Simone referred to this experience as adding to the tapestry, agreeing with Levitz about the process of shared ownership. However, her own need to emotionally invest in the character in order to write a story that she believes in can lead to a kind of divorce phase when reading about their changes later. Acknowledging that Levitz’s point makes sense, since the DC Universe is constantly growing and changing, Simone summarized; “What I love, I have to get over and move on.”
Added Denny O’Neil “It has to grow and change. When somebody takes a character…and goes in a radically different direction, it seems wrong. But it’s right. The reason these characters are still around, it’s because they have evolved.”
James Robinson followed this by asking O’Neil for his thoughts on the “Green Lantern” title. He said asked if O’Neil’s now legendary take on the character and book had been designed mainly as a move to help sales, to which O’Neil replied simply “That’s what I was told.” Robinson was even more curious about the changes O’Neil made to “Batman” at the time, asking “Why did you choose to do that?”
According to O’Neil, his editor Julius Schwarz gave him a mission to get away from the half-hearted imitation of the camp TV show because “once camp was over, it was over. It was like turning off a light. All Neil and Julie and I did was try to take it back to what Bill Finger and Bob Kane started with, and that’s kind of true. But we had a sort of false memory. When I went back and read those stories, I found that what we did was implicit. That’s what you always do with superheroes; if this guy could exist, what would he be? I’ve always felt most comfortable working with characters who were in trouble or were not popular. With Green Lantern and Green Arrow, there were no expectations.”
O’Neil continued, “[With Green Arrow,] we were thinking the woods are full of rich playboys who put on suits and beat up bad guys, that’s more like a ’30’s and ’40’s sort of trope. What else is there? What about a street level, counter-culture superhero?. It was part intention, but a lot of it is serendipity, and good luck and things happening at the right time.”
At this point, Robinson remarked on Straczynski’s propensity for working outside of the continuity of the major characters that he writes, preferring to work with a clean slate. He contrasted this with his own delight in the intricacies of existing continuity and noted Gail Simone’s work on the continuity of “Wonder Woman” and “Birds of Prey,” while “Secret Six” has a world of its own.
It seems that part of this technique is down to Straczynski’s experience writing for TV. While he enjoys continuity, the writer feels it’s important at some point to highlight or service the main character.
Judd Winnick’s experience of writing “Justice League: Generation Lost” which is connected to “Brightest Day” speaks of another kind of continuity, where everybody is involved and, “things happen where you have an entire issue which you have to rewrite. Within that, you have to find out how to tell the best story. You’re working off one another, and great things can happen…they feels like it is whole universe. The flip side is when we get to write our own little stories and ‘I just want to write my superhero stories and be left alone.’ That keeps us sane.”
Gail Simone was quick to agree, saying that she likes working both in and out of continuity. “I really enjoy the variety, which is something DC offers. It’s a blast doing it both ways.”
While everyone was of one voice, acknowledging the joys of working in and out of continuity, Paul Levitz reminded everyone that there’s a difference between continuity and coordinating large events. “I’d separate the use of the word continuity in the sense of the rich mythology, from flying in formation…”Brightest Day” and and how that has to pull together. It really seems to me that what you’re asking the group of writers to do is fly in stunt formation, where everyone around you is going at mach 2. I have enormous respect for it. I haven’t tried it in the modern universe, where all the work takes place so much faster than it did when I was writing comics 20 years ago. Right now, I get the benefit of continuity without having to fly quite so fast.”
O’Neil said that the first time they wrote things that incorporated continuity, it wasn’t intentional. He said that from his own perspective, improperly used continuity can weaken the brand. But “If you distance yourself from it and think about it the way that you think about the rest of your tool kit, it can be a good thing.”
Robinson then asked the panel which characters they had loved as children (outside of the big three) that they had gotten to write.
Straczynski talked about his love of the Barry Allen Flash and how much he’d like to write that title. Judd’s favorite was Green Arrow, and he described the 5 years that he spent writing “this pinko superhero” as being great adding; “I feel it is some of my best work, and I would like to thank Denny for doing that.”
Simone first mentioned Wonder Woman, but added that outside of the big three, she loved writing Barbara Gordon. “I identified with her, she was a cool redhead…and even though she’s no longer Batgirl, she’s still that kickass redhead. It doesn’t matter if she’s in a wheelchair. It has been one of the best things in my life to put words in her mouth.” O’Neil interjected that the character is actually more interesting as Oracle, and Simone agreed. He then mischievously suggested that he would like to write “Hoppy the Marvel Bunny,” then more seriously suggested writing a story about “Captain Marvel Jr,” asking why he would ever go back to being Freddy Freeman, who had such a miserable life.
Levitz’s contribution was a deep appreciation of Legion of Super-Heroes and how many years he’s gotten to play with the team. He expressed an interest in one day writing more Green Lantern and Batman.
At this point, Robinson opened the floor to questions from the audience, and one gentleman asked about the pleasures and perils of working with characters who have had decades of fans following of them. Particularly, he mentioned “The Brave and the Bold” storyline that Straczynski recently wrote, which elicited such a negative response from some quarters.
Straczynski answered that primarily he’s had to grow a thick skin and acknowledged the right of fans to have those feelings. “Fortunately, I’m arrogant, thick-headed and stubborn, so I can handle it” he said.
O’Neil added that this medium is unique in how long the characters have been around to be built upon. He said that for everyone, the interpretation of the character that was around when the character became important to each individual will always be the most true to them, it’s unavoidable, and it puts the editor in a very tricky position because you have to let these characters evolve, even if people are hurt of outraged. He hates to do it, but can’t see a way out of it.
The next audience member wanted to know about crossover events. He asked about “Identity Crisis,” wondering, “what was on the horizon then, and what events extend now?”
Winnick charted the progress, but said that while the events didn’t happen by accident, the magnitude of them often wasn’t by design. Relaunching titles became events, which became weeklies as an evolution of enjoying working together. Things like “Brightest Day” are planned long before the end of “Blackest Night,” whereas “Justice League: Generation Lost” sort of found it’s feet organically. Levitz summarized that it is important to distinguish between planned and aimed, describing the organic process of creating events. “It’s half planning, it’s half reactive.”
One audience member asked Straczynski; “Superman refers to a terminally ill character who commited suicide. Is that someone from the DC universe?”
Straczynski could only reply “No, but you’ll find out eventually.”
The next question to come from the audience was for James Robinson – “Donna Troy’s blue lasso of persuasion. Where did it come from, and why blue?”
The coloring and name, as it turned out, was a perfect example of an organically growing story point. Robinson’s initial confusion with the coloring on the comic caused him to question whether it was silver or blue, which made him realize that he liked the blue. “It was just the challenge of coming up with a new power. It’s a personal challenge for me that I’ve decided to make Donna as kickass as I can and make her a character that everyone will eventually love.” Donna’s power was open-ended, so he had the opportunity to develop her and her strong will seemed like a good place to start.
A question from the audience for Simone focused on the Secret Six, asking “How do you keep such an eclectic group of sociopaths…without them killing each other?” Simone chuckled and replied “The truth is, they kind of like each other, even though they don’t want to admit it.”
A rather complex question late in the panel led to some quick answers, when a fan asked “What was the one idea that someone else came up with that you wish you came up with for that particular character that you were walking on?”
Winnick said that he envied Jeph Loeb on Jason Todd when they brought the character back and then took him away.
The same questioner said that he loved “The Twelve,” to which he was happy to receive the news that it is being finished.
The audience member then asked Straczynski about the current incarnation of Wonder Woman, who is in her 20s. He wanted to know why, if she’s now young, we also need to have Donna Troy? Or is Wonder Woman now out of continuity.
Straczynski wanted the questioner to keep in mind that, at the moment, the gods are screwing with her, changing her past and her present, but he promised that all of this would become clear as the story progresses.
The next question came along with some laughter from a young teen dressed in a sombrero and homemade superhero costume who asked, “When do I get to have my own comic book for Mexican Avenger?” Straczynski joked that it was only being published in Arizona. Robinson noted his affection for the Mexican characters in the DC Universe, and that he looked forward to developing them further.
A “Batgirl” reader asked Simone what her thoughts are on the new book. She talked about it positively, and when he asked if Oracle’s presence in that book would impact on “Birds of Prey,” she affirmed that it would.
The final question came from a man wondering about when the panel had experienced “writer’s remorse.”
O’Neil’s run on “Wonder Woman” is apparently not his favorite, Simone had two particular issues of “Teen Titans” in mind and Robinson talked about regretting killing one character in “Cry For Justice.” saying that it wasn’t Lian Harper, but refusing to tell exactly who. It was all very good natured and the panel giggled throughout.