'BLACKJACK' WRITER VISITS GOTHAM WITH
'BATMAN: ORPHEUS RISING'
Alex Simmons is another overnight success years in the making.
For many DC Comics fans, the first time they'll hear of him is when his new miniseries, "Batman: Orpheus Rising," comes out in late 2001.
But Simmons has been working in indie comics for years, most notably on his self-published series of "Blackjack" stories.
"I was approached by a couple of editors at DC ... to pitch something to them," Simmons told the Comic Wire on Thursday. "One editor, L.A. Williams, passed it on to Joe Illidge, and he passed it on to Denny O'Neil. And this is for a project that we didn't do, but that got them interested in me.
"Basically, what they said, they were interested in creating some new characters for the Batman universe, and particularly an African-American character," Simmons said. "You sit there for a jaw down around your ankles for a moment, because you're thinking they're going to offer you a filler project."
No, they were offering a miniseries.
"I wrote it up, and Denny and Joe and I met again, and the story got much bigger than I thought it would, and Denny said 'let's go from a three book deal to a five book deal.' You pick up your tongue and get to work."
"Green Lantern" and "Butcher Knight" artist Dwayne Turner was assigned to the book.
"I can honestly say, at this time, that working on this has been a great time," Simmons said.
So why name this new Batman family character "Orpheus?" Fans of Greek mythology -- or DC/Vertigo's "Sandman" series -- know he was the doomed bard of mythic Greece who went into the underworld to try to bring his late wife back to the lands of the living. While there may be some metaphorical parallels with Simmons' character, he didn't build the character around the name.
"It's the same thing with Blackjack. Characters sometimes call out their names to me," he said. "I was originally going to call him the Rake ... almost to a man, [DC] kept saying 'I keep thinking of gardening tools.'
"I just created this list of names that would come to me. ... Something said 'Orpheus Rising.' I said, 'gee, I like the roll of that, but what does it mean?' I went back to my mythology, and my encyclopedia ... and I said 'this works.' Some of the elements of the character tie into the mythology.
"He too, is on an odyssey, that is going to have some downtime to it, and some upsetting revelations," he said. "It's a circumstance where the name came to me first, and doing some research, I found out, damn, it really does apply."
And while the miniseries tells the story of Orpheus' arrival in Gotham and his trials and tribulations, Batman fans will get plenty of the Dark Knight, Simmons said.
"They'll even get a little bit of Robin, a little bit of Oracle, some of the other key elements of the GCPD," he said. "The circumstances are such that, because Denny and DC gave me a five book sweep to work the story out in, I have the space to create all the circumstances that are going on, develop this character, but not cheat the Batman fans of what they want to see when they buy a book to see Batman."
Simmons isn't interested in spoiling the series ahead of time, especially nine or more months before it's actually headed to the comic stands. But he will say "Orpheus Rising" involves a cop-killer, a gang war, street gangs and a sinister plot "that definitely is aiming Gotham at a major explosion. ... There's a definite purpose to all of this. In the middle of this is Batman, trying to deal with all of this, along with this new person who has come to Gotham, who may be responsible for this.
"We're working along the lines of what happened when Bane came to Gotham. All hell is breaking loose."
And, of course, Simmons is getting to write one of pop culture's biggest characters.
"As I started writing Batman, I started realizing what power this character has," he said. "Here I am writing him, and in a way, he almost speaks for himself. You're so clear on so many aspects of him ... I hope they'll say 'yeah, that's Batman going through that.' I'm a Batman fan and I certainly don't want to let me down or DC down or the Batman fans down."
Of course, with the turbulent times Gotham City has been through recently, writing a series that will click with Batman readers has meant that Simmons has had to stay on his toes.
"I will say the 'Officer Down' storyline did throw some of my original storylines up against the wall," he laughed.
There will be some comic readers who will have flinched when they read that DC asked Simmons to come up with a character of color for their Batman books, seeing this as tokenism on the company's part.
"My personal attitude is there's a homogenized representation of the world for way too long, and we need to see the diversity, see the world they way it is all the time," Simmons said. "Unfortunately, for too many people, they think we need more 'edge.' We need more violence, we need more gore, we need more sex. No.
"What would really make me a happy man is when you start to balance out the ratio of products that you do so that you see Latinos, African-Americans, women to how they appear in real life. And that doesn't happen."This isn't a big evil conspiracy, Simmons said. Instead, creators go with what they know. Predominantly white male creators write about predominantly white male characters.
"You get a bunch of black folk together, they'll go that way, too.
"In comics right now, I think it's kind of sad that you have so much money spent on comics, and you have so little representation of people of color," Simmons said. "I think it's possible to do it in a way that can make [everyone] happy."
Characters like Orpheus were in short supply when Simmons started reading comics and watching television in the 1960s.
"Most of the characters I grew up watching were white. I never forgot what color I was," he said. "And they were white men or white women doing things, and we thought they were cool, but that didn't negate that we wanted to see some of us doing it. ... We have a better opportunity now. And in comic books, we have that opportunity as well. But it's got to be quality."
For those interested in getting a look at Simmons' work now, there's always the indie book that got the attention of the Batman powers-that-be, "Blackjack."
"'Blackjack' is first and foremost the story of an African-American soldier of fortune in the 1930s," Simmons said. "So you have all that globe-trotting, action-adventure, Indiana Jones aspect of it. But you have it all told from the point of view of a person of color."
And while "Blackjack" is informed by the race of protagonist Arron Day, it's not the whole story.
"I did NOT set out to do a book about black hero. I set out to do a hero book that happened to be about a person of color," Simmons said. And he seems to have struck the right balance: "Our audience base is very diversified. ... Once the book was out, we were meeting everyone from blond-haired, blue-eyed kids in Michigan, to Muslims, to Hell's Angels ..."
The latest Blackjack book, the graphic novel "Blackjack: Blood and Honor," collects the second miniseries.
"One of the factors that makes it unique [is] you have the high adventure, but you have the leaps and jumps and such, but the story is set in some historically accurate setting ... and then, at the end of the book ... there's a section we call 'Shades of History' ... that gives you wonderful miniature biographies of men or women of color that did something for this world that you don't hear about much."
The next Blackjack book, the 100 page anthology "Blackjack: Buried Secrets," will be out in late February, with art by Eric Battle (Aquaman), Steve Ellis (Jezebelle), Louis Small, Jr. (DC/Vertigo).
"It's a collection of Blackjack stories. So you'll not only have stories of the main characters," Simmons said, "But also stories about his supporting characters."
TRAVELING BY DARK HORSE TO SAN DIEGO
It's hard to prepare a fan for Comic-Con International in San Diego. It's huge, packed with fans, publishers, dealers and assorted hangers-on, some of whom have flown around the world to be there.
This year, Dark Horse Comics is sending a hard core comic fan without the wherewithal to get there under his or her own power to the July 19-22 convention, on them.
Participants in the "Fly the DH Skies to Comic-Con International 2001" must describe in a snail mail letter why they are Dark Horse's greatest fan. The grand prize winner receives roundtrip airfare for two, lodging for three days and two nights, $250 in spending money, a pass to the convention, and a "VIP" pass to all Dark Horse Comics-related events.
More details available at Dark Horse's Web site.
BRIAN AZZARELLO AND THE N-WORD
Note: The following article includes objectionable language.
Brian Azzarello doesn't write about nice people.
Whether it's in the pages of DC/Vertigo's "100 Bullets" or "Hellblazer," he tells stories of unpleasant people doing unpleasant things to other unpleasant people, and along the way, some of them die.
And some of them also use one of the most loaded words in America today: "nigger."
The word has shown up in more than one story in each series, and in at least one online forum -- the rec.arts.comics.vertigo -- he's been called a racist for using the term.
"I've found that getting involved in fan debates is a no win situation," Azzarello told the Comic Wire on Thursday, "But since you brought this to my attention and asked me to comment I will.
"What's been said: If writer utilizes racist characters in his stories, that makes him a 'racist.'
"I disagree. A writer is a 'racist' if he uses his characters to further a philosophy that he subscribes to: one that espouses the virtues of one race over others. The same holds true for a publisher.
"One cannot evaluate the dialogue in any work of fiction without considering two factors -- context and authenticity. Who's saying it, and is it something they'd really say? In the real world, people use rough language. And in the real world, people do denigrate one another along lines of race, gender and sexual orientation. Some fiction should acknowledge this."
THE COMIC BRIEF THAT TIME FORGOT
Here's what's news (and press releases) in CBR's Comic Brief, in the first days of the George W. Bush presidency:
- Actor announced to play young Superman in WB's 'Smallville'
- Avatar Press solicitations for products shipping April 2001
- Viz Publishing solicitations for products shipping May 2001