The big question surrounding DC Comics coming into 2016's Chicago Comics & Entertainment Expo (or C2E2 for short) was whether the publisher would spend the weekend spilling secrets about their incoming "Rebirth" realignment of the DC superhero universe. That question followed the company's talent into Friday's "DC: Faces of Villainy" panel which focused on the darker corners of the DCU.
Taking the stage for the discussion were "Batman" writer Scott Snyder, "Secret Six" writer Gail Simone, "Poison Ivy: Cycle of Life and Death" creators Amy Chu and Clay Mann, "Superman/Wonder Woman" artist Doug Mahnke and "Harley Quinn" artist Chad Hardin.
The panel started with a note that very scarce details of "Rebirth" would be revealed this weekend, but next week at WonderCon in LA, the publisher will be live streaming its press event on Friday morning.
The assembled creators then went over their favorite DC villains. Hardin understandably picked Harley Quinn, and Chu backed Poison Ivy. Simone swerved left with Starro, but the rest of the panel went with the Joker who was an obvious audience favorite.
When Mahnke's cover to the classic Ed Brubaker-penned one-shot "The Man Who Laughs" was shown as a prime example of the villain, the artist explained his process for capturing the Clown Prince of Crime. "It's all in the smile while making him not look happy at the same time. It's all in that dichotomy," Mahnke said, noting that he was as happy with that cover where he caught "the essence of the Joker" as he is with anything he's done. Hardin agreed that the character required you "combining the deep, dark heart of evil with the smile of a clown." Mann said he's only drawn the character once or twice and said, "I hate drawing him...all the Jokers I grew up looking at I see in my head, so I find it very hard to draw him."
"He sees what you're most afraid of...and he sets out to show you that that thing is really true," Snyder said of the character. The writer said the weirdest thing he's ever gotten from DC was a version of his skin-masked Joker turned into a lawn ornament, which he recently made the mistake of opening in front of his kids. "They've got years of therapy coming."
Simone pivoted to talk of a less outwardly evil character in the Penguin. "He's not what he appears on the outside," said the writer. "I like writing villains that are not necessarily scary just by looking at them. I feel that way about the Penguin and the Mad Hatter because of the mind control...I like taking that and twisting those inside guts to see what comes out of that strange little package."
Chu and Mann discussed their work on "Poison Ivy" teasing how the story of a supposedly reformed Pamela Isley changes in upcoming issues.Â "It's like real life. Maybe you've done some things in your past, and you're trying to get passed it and get to work. And then people start getting killed, but this time it's not you. How do you deal with that?" Chu promised that issue #4 will have things ramping up quickly, based in part on the lessons she learned as one of Snyder's writing students. "Ivy is torn. She's now in a geeky lab job. She's smart, and she's trying to hold it together. But things really start falling apart in issue #3."
Snyder said that his current "Super Heavy" Batman arc is all about Jim Gordon through the lens of his new arch-villain Mr. Bloom. "The reason [Gordon] stepped into the suit was noble, but it was also kind of flawed," Snyder said of what he called he and Greg Capullo's final arc. Where Gordon works to prove that civic ideals like the police force are good, the villain of the piece Mr. Bloom is in the story to show how the average citizen isn't really a force for good but is a villain. Snyder promised Bloom's origin in the upcoming issue #50 where he spreads super-powered seeds amongst the people to let them go loose. "He's almost like the reverse Joker...anyone could be Bloom is we lose faith in each other and ourselves," Snyder said, teasing that in the finale the villain will grow to giant kaiju-size and take on Robo-Batman.
Talk shifted to the Superman side of the DCU as panelists were asked how they'd pitch specific villains, which stumped quite a few of the creators. Chu took on the task of understanding Lex Luthor, saying, "My thing with Poison Ivy has been that she's Lex Luthor-smart. She's his mental equal. So if I pitched on Luthor, it would take a similar track of exploring that side of him while humanizing him." Mahnke noted that when he draws the bald villain, his goal is to make him look less impressive than he the character thinks he is. "I've drawn Luthor when he's just bad Lex Luthor. I've drawn President Luthor. I've drawn Justice League Luthor, and your impression of him is always affected by who's writing him...he's a great heroic villainish kind of guy. That little part of him that doesn't trust those who can take down the human race is kind of how Batman looks at things. There are similarities between the characters....it's just that Luthor's plans also involve subjugating the people themselves."
Snyder said that the scary thing about Brainiac as a character is that he's so much more smart than humanity that he views human intelligence like "explaining math to a cat...he's entirely alien."
Mann was offered the "Would you rather?" choice of drawing Brainiac or Doomsday, and said his Superman influences came from "Superman: The Animated Series" and appreciated the creepiness of the alien character's presentation there. But he also said that "The Death of Superman" was one of his very first comics, so when it came to choosing between the two "I don't know. Whatever you guys tell me to do," he deadpanned.
Snyder was asked if he had to pitch on a "Wonder Woman Vs. Ares" story, what would he do. "I have a whole mythology for Wonder Woman in my head. If Bruce takes the earthly threats, and Clark takes the cosmic threats, then Wonder Woman takes everything that comes from the mythological," Snyder said, adding that he really wants to write a Wonder Woman book and explore characters like Cheetah who were cursed by the gods. "Wonder Woman is someone who walks the line between god and man...she makes us feel worthy of the gods' love, but Ares is the one who says 'No' and that mankind is built for war."
Hardin then went into the major story that was the recent 25th issue of "Harley Quinn" where the character confronted the man in her past. "This is what's been building for the first 25 issues...it all comes to a head when she has to face the Joker in #25 and put him in his place. It's Harley liberating herself from the most abusive relationship in comics," the artist said. "I had a lot of fun with this no-holds-barred, one-on-one deathmatch in Joker's cell."
The topic shifted to anti-heroes, particularly how Simone has continued to explore that idea with her long-running "Secret Six" franchise."This is what I love to do: take weak characters and find their greatness and take great characters and find their weaknesses...then exploit the crap out of them," she said. Simone explained how her version of "Secret Six" started when she had to write a series called "Villains United" but "They wouldn't give me any of the villains." As a result, she ended up turning the former Z-lister Catman in to an anti-hero. "Anti-heroes do good things for the wrong reasons and bad things for the write reasons. It creates an unpredictability that I absolutely love," she said.
All this talk led up to a discussion of the upcoming "Suicide Squad" movie, and the panel showed off the trailer for the film quickly before opening up for a few questions from the audience. A fan asked what it felt like for the comics makers to see their own work show up in movies, TV and animation. "I get very excited about it, and that's because I love these characters and this world, and it's getting out in front of a wider audience. I'm not longer the weird girl in school who likes these characters," Simone said.
"When Geoff [Johns] takes you into the room and says, 'See this animated movie? We're using your characters' or shows you toys, there's no better feeling," Snyder said. "When someone takes something that's personal to you and spins it in a different way, it's very gratifying. When someone takes the Court of Owls or our Joker and makes it theirs, that's the best."
Another audience member asked if the villain-centric stories were more fun to create. Hardin said, "As someone who used to sit on [the fan side] of things, they offer you a chance to play with these characters on the phone, and then you hang up and do a little dance....there are restraints and constrictions and advantages and disadvantages to everything you do. I was a Boy Scout, and my grandma HATES my comic. It really comes down to your personal preference, but there's never a dull moment or a bad moment."
Discussion wrapped with talk of the villains each creator wants to do that they haven't yet. Hardin said he wants to draw a "Warlord" comic. Snyder has a Two-Face story coming, but his talk of Mr. Bloom has Simone wanting to write that character. Both Mahnke and Chu want to do a Killer Croc story. And Mann joked, "I was going to say the Joker, but I'm going to say Two-Face now."