The DC Nation block that brings DC Comics’ superheroes to Cartoon Network may be on hiatus until the new year, but fans of shows like “Green Lantern: The Animated” series can still get their fix via the official comic tie-in that ships to comic shops each month.
This week, the all-ages GL series brings an extra gift to readers though by celebrating the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah in an adventure tale by new regular writer Ivan Cohen and artist Luciano Vecchio. Titled “The Hammer & The Nail,” the eighth issue of the comic is less a rumination on the eight-day Festival of Lights and more an action comic inspired by the traditional Hanukkah story.
Cohen may be an unfamiliar name to many DC readers, but he’s worked behind the scenes on some of DC’s biggest properties for years including a stint as Coordinating Editor for the publisher where he oversaw solo titles including “Wonder Woman” and “Secret Files & Origins” and later a run as the Creative Executive that connected DC’s publishing and media divisions for movies like “RED” and “The Losers,” TV shows like “Smallville” and “Human Target” and the DC Universe line of animated DVDs. [Full disclosure: Cohen also gave this reporter his first comics gig as a DC intern ten years ago]. Below, the writer discusses all his DC work, shares the story behind his “Green Lantern” Hanukkah tale, reveals what’s next for the animated comic and reflects on the DC holiday tradition.
CBR News: Ivan, you worked for years at DC in a number of capacities including in Editorial. For fans who may not recognize your name, what are some of the comics you had a hand in making that you were proud of and felt were indicative of your time on that job?
As we’re moving forward, I was talking to my friend Mike Siglain who used to work at DC and is now an editor at Disney, and I realized that doing this “Green Lantern” comic is like doing “Star Trek.” There’s a new alien race every issue with new problems all seen through the lens of these familiar characters. But instead of being Kirk, Spock and McCoy, it’s Hal, Kilowog, ship computer Aya and the Red Lantern Razer. We get to play with the format a little. The TV show has a few limitations in that it’s a CG show with an elaborate process for designing new characters, but in the comic, we can create whole races that only appear in one panel if we want. Although my artist Luciano Vecchio wouldn’t be too happy about that. [Laughs]
So the theme of this week’s issue is “a Green Lantern Hanukkah comic.” How in the world did that come about?
[Laughs] Well, we knew my second issue would be shipping in November, and so I pitched Kristy a bunch of story ideas – none of them Hanukkah related. Then she called me and said, “Looking at the schedule and what Art and Franco are planning, we don’t have a holiday issue set for this year. You can do what you’ve already pitched, or if you want, you can do a holiday story.” It was totally up to me, and I don’t know if I’d say I always love a challenge, but this one was interesting to me. I pitched three Green Lantern Christmas stories and then one Hanukkah story. And I guess I always imagined that someone named Kristy Quinn would go for the Christmas stories, so I got really excited for those. Then she picked the Hanukkah one, and I thought, “Geez. This is going to be the hardest one to write!” [Laughs] I was all set to do Hal as Rudolph using his ring to guide people through the darkest sections of space, but the Hanukkah story ended up being a lot of fun if super challenging.
Well, it’s not the traditional kind of holiday story where the hero comes across a Jewish family and learns the “true meaning of Hanukkah” or something like that. This is still a space adventure story. How did the holiday inform what is in many ways still an action comic?
That was a huge challenge to do because Hal is not Jewish, so we were never going to have him marooned on an alien world saying to his friends, “You know on earth, they’re celebrating Hanukkah right now. Let me tell you the magical story of the flame that burned for eight days.” That would be phony and horrible. [Laughs] Even as a Jewish comics reader, I would have known that was nonsense and that I was being condescended to.
So I tried to figure out things you can do with that story that fit this comic. And there are precedence for that kind of thing. I remembered that old “Legion of Super-Heroes” story where Superboy tries to find the star showing over Bethlehem. That kind of thing. I wanted to do something a little more abstracted, and the thing about the Hanukkah story is that it’s already a story about a battle. It’s a story that has soldiers kicking ass. But it’s also a story about a miracle where this thing that’s supposed to last for one day lasts for eight days. That was the lightbulb moment for me. “Traditionally, Hal’s ring lasts for one day on a charge from the Green Lantern. What if I could do a story where he has to make his power last for eight days?”
From there, I just added in other traditional Hanukkah elements wherever I could so it would really be a Hanukkah story. He’s on a planet where the names are connected to Judah Maccabee, the hero of the traditional story, so one of the characters is named Mk’Abee in the classic kind of comic book alien spelling. And her little brother is named J’Dah. Their tribal colors are white and blue, which are the traditional Jewish/Israili colors, and they’re called The Hammer Tribe, which is what the Judah name’s translation literally means. And also, you get to watch Kilowog eat latkes, which was for me the highlight.
There is a tradition in superhero comics and in the DCU of holiday-themed stories. Geoff Johns’ old “JSA” Thanksgiving dinners come to mind. Did you have any favorites from the past that informed how you approached this one?
I read those comics when I was a kid. I was a voracious comics reader, and I believe — I’m kind of embarrassed to admit this — that there is a published letter by me in an issue of “DC Comics Presents” talking about how much I loved the issue that featured Superman and Santa Claus. In retrospect, I don’t think I loved the issue so much as I was just home with pneumonia and wrote into 20 different comics to see if I could get a letter printed. That was one of three that got in. [Laughs]
I do remember a story about the Atom from the ’70s that seemed to indicate Ray Palmer was Jewish, and it was never mentioned again. Years later, I know it was a big deal that when the new Batwoman was introduced that she was a lesbian…but it was also a big deal that she was Jewish! That was crazy. I mean, nobody noticed except me and other Jewish comics readers, but it was exciting because religion doesn’t come up very much for these characters.
Still, as for religious comic book stories, the Christmas ones are a pretty big deal. And the Geoff Thanksgiving issues are fantastic. Joe Kubert also did lots of great Old Testament Bible comics that were straight adaptations and fantastic. So there are no specific stories I’m referencing here, but things like that Legion story I remember which Paul Levitz wrote. It was an honest attempt to do something tricky which is acknowledge Christian theology in the DC Universe. It can be tough some times as a Jewish comics fan to read stories that seem to canonize the idea that Jesus is divinity. But on the other hand, when I was a kid reading comics it was when they introduced the Spear of Destiny as this powerful artifact that got involved in the Crisis stories. So that stuff can work in there. You’ve just got to find the right way.
A lot of the books coming out of the DC West Coast editorial office are formatted first for digital devices like the iPad where the printed page of the comic are two “screens” stacked on top of one another. Is that something you’ve been playing with to make these comics available via the DC Kids app?
I don’t think we thought about that so much in my first issues as much as we have with the later ones, but yeah, you won’t be seeing any two-page spreads or as many splash pages. That’s a realistic consideration because the kids books are always made with an eye towards “How can we get this out in as many formats as possible?” They translate them into foreign languages and release on tablets with the hope that parents will download them for their kids to read on a reader like the iPad. I don’t know if you’ve ever read any comics on a phone, but it’s not an ideal way to read a comic. We try to make choices that help that, and Luciano has made some choices to help make the pages feel big even when they’re formatted in a way that can work for a smaller screen.
Wrapping up, what’s your next step for this series and for comics in general?
I become the regular writer on “Green Lantern: The Animated Series” with issue #10, and that’s the first issue I’ve done with Dario Brizuela who is the regular artist on the series. I’m very proud of how that one came out. My next issue after that is #12 which introduces a new character to the Green Lantern universe that I’m shocked Geoff Johns hasn’t done yet. I’m excited to add that new character to the mythos, which is a planet-sized Red Lantern. It’s basically the Red Lantern equivalent of Mogo.
Apart from that, there’s some other stuff that I have limited ability to talk about. I’m consulting on a PBS documentary about superheroes right now. I’ve also just written the introduction to the latest volume of “Wonder Woman Archives” which just came out last week. It’s an essay about how much I hate Steve Trevor. [Laughter] I’ve also written an episode of a new DC animated series that should be debuting late next year or early the year after.
“Green Lantern: The Animated Series” #8 is in stores today from DC Comics.