As CBR News has learned over time, there’s not many ways to faze writers Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti. No question is too tough or too inquisitive. But when CBR News sat down with the duo to discuss their new job as writers of DC Comics’ “Hawkman” series, CBR News learned one thing: don’t ask them what “Hawkman” is all about.
“I think the more important question is why should someone who hasn’t picked up an issue of Hawkman be interested in him just because a new team is taking over the book?” says Gray. “For one thing this is a jumping on point for new readers to try a book that they may have preconceived ideas about what’s on the other side of those brilliant Greg Land covers. We’re approaching Hawkman from an outside perspective and drilling down into the core of the character rather than the other way around. Yes he has an extensive past and a great deal of continuity and on some levels that can alienate new readers so the basic plan is to focus on who Hawkman is, his problems, his relationship, his friends and his city. At the same time we’re digging into some of the more interesting elements of his continuity and using them to our advantage. Obviously he’s a super heroic character but he’s also got to be able to make a connection with people. On some level you have to be able to set aside the fact that Hawkman is a guy with wings and an iron lollypop and see yourself reflected in him. Otherwise there’s no reason to care about what happens when some homicidal maniac in drag shows up looking for blood.”
His partner in writing crime, Palmiotti, couldn’t agree more. “I think Justin nails this question on the head. Hawkman is a more blood and guts superhero that deals with situations a bit different than his other super friends. He is more passionate and reacts with his heart, which I find very appealing about him.”
Though these two are obviously passionate about the Hawks, it wasn’t that passion which allowed them to nab the coveted “Hawkman” gig- it was the strength of their previous works. “[Editor] Stephen Wacker wanted us to pitch and by God Stephen Wacker gets what he wants,” laughs Gray. “Happily he got exactly what he wanted and here we are. Attracted to the series? Two young lovers decide it might be a good idea to dress up like birds and go about clubbing villainy with ancient weapons. What’s not to like?”
“From what Stephen told us, he was really enjoying what we were doing on ’21 Down’ and wanted to see if we could apply the same kind of storytelling and character development to Hawkman,” says Palmiotti. “What attracted me was that I personally think Hawkman is a very difficult character to write and keep interesting and I always like a challenge.”
Though his sales may not eclipse those of Batman or Superman, Hawkman has a devoted fanbase and Gray explains why those fans are unique individuals. “There are upward of 200 posts on the DC board about Hawkman’s hairy chest and 400 plus about Kendra’s ass so you tell me,” he laughs.
Palmiotti has his own theories on Hawkman’s continued popularity and it all relates to Mother Palmiotti. “Well, my mother has a bird, and she loves it. His name is lucky and he really just sits there and repeats his name over and over, like a power drill pushing its way to the very core of your scull till all you can think about is how many different ways this little bird would cook up to a crisp golden brown and be served at a Flashdancers happy hour to a bunch of unhappy suburban husbands throwing their hard earned cash into the g-strings of inarticulate Russian slave girls pumping their way through computer school. Hawkman, on the other hand, can speak more than one word, fly out of his cage and swing a mallet into midtown traffic. I can totally get behind that.”
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Gray promptly falls to the ground laughing, prompting some people walking by to stare and he exclaims, “Stop! You’re killing me!”
Most comics book fans have a vague idea of Hawkman’s history, because his past has been rather convoluted, but the new writers promise that the character’s history has been sorted and new readers won’t be confused. “Really…you can pick up any issue and get it,” says Palmiotti.”In the first couple of pages of every issue we bring the readers up to speed. It is out job. We have to do that!”
Previously, Geoff Johns wrote the adventures of Hawkman and in his 25 issue run with artist Rags Morales, many fans felt Johns wrote the definitive Hawkman. While Gray & Palmiotti liked Johns’ work, they’re taking the book in their own direction. “Geoff covered the superhero elements surrounding Hawkman between this book and the JSA over the last few years so we felt it would be interesting to examine Carter Hall and Kendra Saunders in and out of costume in the first arc,” Gray says. “There’s a dynamic between them that begs to be explored. I mean what’s with this doomed love? Why are they doomed? Why are they reborn only to suffer the same fate over and over again? Do they get tired of the cycle and can it be broken?
If you’re looking for an explanation of the team’s tone for the series, Palmiotti says the proof is in the first arc. “I think the first four issues of the series we worked on will give everyone a good idea where the book will be heading. Anyone that has been a fan of Geoff’s run will not be disappointed in the least.”
Under Johns’ tenure, “Hawkman” was tied closely to “JSA,” with the most recent example of that being the “Black Reign” crossover between the two series, but while the series will still share ties, it’ll be different. “Not in the same way it has been in the past. The cover says Hawkman and he’s the star. You’ll see familiar characters from time to time and some perhaps unexpected ones as well,” teases Gray.
With that wicked smile of his, Palmiotti offers a few more morsels for fans to savor over, saying, “In the future, certain events will bring other characters from the JSA our way, but not very soon…the book has just done that and really, like Justin stated, it is Hawkman’s title.”
Following Johns also involves some added pressure on the writers, as the California based writer has quite a fan following. But to Palmiotti, an industry veteran at a young age, he says, “[the only pressure is] Just the slight pressure to keep what he has set up in the series and take the story from there. It’s not hard for us really, especially since both of us were fans of the book, but that’s behind us now and we have to look forward and do so with respecting the past. Our goal is to make this book our book now, and not be the ‘next guys.’ I know these are big shoes to fill, but we really have to go in with that attitude or else why bother.”
The first Palmiotti/Gray Hawkman arc hits shelves in May and is entitled “Fate’s Warning.” Not much information has been leaked about the story, so Gray adds in some details. “Hawkman needs to be grounded in his city; he’s the defender of St. Roch and should have a presence and a role in what happens there. While St. Roch is a dark town it’s not like Gotham or any other city in the DCU. The first arc involves a killer with unique perspective on the city and his own place in it. After that arc we have a single-issue story featuring Hawkman and Atom that was inspired by the sort of fun and campy sci-fi work of Gardner Fox. After that we go to work on Hawkman in a way that’s best answered in your next question.”
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It’s been promised by many parties that this story will “push Hawkman to his limits” and to some, that term or type of story has become clichéd. But the writers contend that Hawkman’s unique facets and nuances mean testing his mettle isn’t going to be the same as you’d see with a different character. “There are things you can do with and to Hawkman that you can’t do to a Superman or Wonder Woman,” contends Gray. “Pushing isn’t the right word…let’s say that the plan is to test the limits of what we can do with a mainstream character.”
Palmiotti isn’t worried about duplicating the efforts of other writers or fans’ preconceptions before seeing the first issue- he knows that the Gray/Palmiotti “Hawkman” is going to be something different. “We are going to approach things ‘our way’ and take the characters someplace the other writers didn’t not go when they had the Hawks in their capable hands. We will be going in a direction that gets more into the characters head and breaks down their ways of thinking. The next big storyline will have something for everyone and by the end of the year, set up some really exciting stories that will get us fired from the title in no time. .”
While Palmiotti’s tenure in comics has been wide and varied, from running Event Comics with Marvel EIC Joe Quesada and then launching the Marvel Knights imprint, he still finds “Hawkman” offers him some unique pleasures. “The easiest thing about working on the book has, for me, been Justin and Stephen Wacker. Both of these guys are world books of knowledge and really know when to slap down the really silly ideas that come into my head. I know myself…my first instinct with a character is to ask a million questions that start with the word ‘why’ and then the next is ‘has anyone ever thought of doing…’ you can see where I am getting at eventually. With working with Justin, his who what and where come from a totally different place and when we meet head on, we can come up with some pretty cool stuff…and that’s where Stephen comes in. He says the usual ‘you guys are nuts’ kind of stuff till we all find that happy place where we all are good with going after a story or theme that we can all explore confidentially.”
Despite the fact that Palmiotti & Gray have received some stunning reviews for their previous efforts, namely Wildstorm’s “The Resistance” and “21 Down,” they’ve found the series have been short lived and it isn’t something that makes them worry about the sales on “Hawkman.” “I could list the reasons I think books are cancelled or placed on hiatus,” says Gray. “I could say that ‘Monolith’ [their new DCU series] was under ordered, but who cares? Hawkman fans have been nothing but supportive thus far and I’ve seen no indication that the other books are influencing their opinions in a negative way. And Monolith is doing fine as once again we’ve created a new character and a new book and face the uphill battle that accompanies it.”
According to Palmiotti, he believes there is a big reason that some of his work hasn’t sold as well and he says, “The reason? They are new characters and needed time to get an audience. Some get it, some don’t. ‘Monolith’ will be around the DCU long after we are gone. ’21 Down’ will be on TV in the near future, and ‘The Resistance’ will be collected, repackaged and become a giant hit on a small island in the Bahamas. Or so we hope [laughs].”
“Lets be realistic, DC has balls introducing new concepts and characters, and it takes balls to support these new ideas. DC, right now, is the best place for any creator to work in the industry, hands down. You can kid yourselves with numbers and fame, but DC is the real deal and gets behind its talent and asks the questions ‘what would you like to do?’ Do you have any new ideas you want to pitch?’ And so on. That said, I think for every failure, there are successes and that has to be looked upon with admiration. We would never get new people into reading comics without fresh ideas.”
When the Gray & Palmiotti duo is referred to by fans, often one only hears Palmiotti’s name and it can seem like Gray is being forgotten in the equation. Does it bother Gray? “People should focus on Jimmy because he deserves it and I’m happy that the point of that focus is on writing now rather than exclusively viewing him as ‘just an inker,'” he replies. “He’s carried that stigma long enough and I think he deserves the respect afforded a creator of his caliber. To answer your question it doesn’t bother me. I’ve got zero interest in being a public celebrity and the joke between us is that I’m invisible. To his credit Jimmy is always trying to get me to speak up more and draw more attention to myself, but I’m not that kind of person and I’m sure on some level that’s a drawback. I find the idea of being the center of attention and having people staring at me very unnerving. I believe the technical term is mild agoraphobia. My focus is always writing that’s what makes me happy.”
Almost on cue, Palmiotti looks around the table to see if he can find a certain individual. “Who is this Justin guy you are talking to?” he asks.
“I am a six-foot tall invisible rabbit that never sleeps,” Gray responds.
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Joining the writers on “Hawkman” is artist Ryan Sook and they’re excited to have him onboard. “Mood and a flair for dramatic expression combined with an evolving style,” said Gray of Sook’s work. From what I understand Ryan has acting experience as well, which is invaluable when you look at the book from a storytelling perspective. Mood and storytelling is key to transporting the reader into the world of fiction and Ryan is masterful at it.”
“Well… I prayed for someone as good as Ryan, but never expected to actually get him,” adds Palmiotti. “Our editor Stephen Wacker, casting director extraordinaire, hooked us up big time.
“Getting Ryan on the book is the best thing to happen to us in a long time. I personally think that most comics are only as good as the artist on the project. In Ryan’s case, we hit the friggin’ lottery. Look at this guy’s work and tell me we are not witnessing the evolution of a brilliant artist. Every page that comes in is better than the last one and the icing on the cake is that I have been a big fans of Ryan’s work for some time now…so its all just great in my mind. Ryan reads the script, and gets it. That’s all you ever want with an artist. Brilliant storytelling and acting make him a top ten guy the minute this first issue hits. Yes…I like his work.”
This series comes with a double-edged sword- the fans. On one hand, there’s built in readership, but on the other hand, they probably have very specific expectations. But Gray and Palmiotti don’t worry about that, with the former explaining, “You find the middle ground between what the fans want and the stories you want to tell. Again the fans have been great and enthusiastic I just hope we can live up to the legacy and one issue won’t be the deciding factor because we’re looking at a much larger story framework.”
His partner in crime couldn’t agree more. “The first person we have to make happy about what we are writing, after us, is our editor, Stephen Wacker,” says Palmiotti. “He has been working on the title for a while and we have to trust his instincts to know what the audience is looking for by now. Justin and I both read the boards, but those threads about Hawkman’s hairy or Kendra’s ass… what kind of story would that be? Hmmmmmm.”
“A mature readers issue?” asks Gray. “Wait…those don’t sell.”
Writing two characters in the DC Universe, namely Hawkman and the Monolith, CBR must ask: which of them would win in a fight?
“Astronauts or Cavemen?” says Gray. “We may never know.”
Just when it seems Palmiotti might offer a response not tinged with humor, he says, “I think they wouldn’t be fighting each other. This is a question I would have easily answered about someone else’s character…you know, Hulk vs Thing. Everyone knows that the Thing would win every time…he got the brains.”