In the Showtime original series "Dexter," series star Michael C. Hall plays Dexter Morgan, a charming and very capable blood spatter analyst who works for the Miami Metro Police Department. He's well liked by most of his colleagues and is very good at his job. Beneath this otherwise normal looking exterior lays a man tormented by memories he has from when he was a young boy, that of the gruesome murder of his mother. That moment changed Dexter forever, bringing out his inner sociopath with an unstoppable urge to kill. The young Dexter was taught by his adoptive father to channel those tendencies towards more "constructive pursuits" - by killing the worst sorts of criminal that plague society. Thus was born the serial killer who kills serial killers.
As the series progresses and Dexter's body count begins to grow, the press labels this unknown killer the Bay Harbor Butcher. The press become fascinated with this new vigilante, wondering if this mystery killer is actually doing society good by getting rid of its most wretched creatures, or is he just as bad as those he kills?
In this past Sunday's episode titled "The Dark Defender," Dexter explores the duality of his character against a super hero backdrop. While this one episode may contain some very obvious references to the world of comics, the title character has more in common with comics than you might think. CBR News spoke with series Executive Producer Daniel Cerone and "The Dark Defender" writer Tim Schlattman about this episode, its comic industry co-stars and how Dexter may share more in common with costumed vigilantes than you might have ever guessed.
In "The Dark Defender," a body is found bludgeoned to death inside a comic shop. When Dexter arrives on the scene to examine the blood spatter, he finds something else that captures his imagination. "In the store, Dexter sees a poster on the wall of this very dark comic book figure called The Dark Defender who's holding a bloody knife, is wearing a mask and standing on a pile of bodies," Cerone told CBR News. "The murder victim was working on creating a comic book character inspired by the Bay Harbor Butcher and selling it, so it becomes a nice backdrop and Dexter is able to fantasize while he looks at that poster and asks himself, 'Is that what I am? Is that how people see me?' It's a very eye-opening moment for him."
Art for The Dark Defender was rendered by comic artist Tone Rodriguez. Scott Reynolds, another member of the "Dexter" writing staff, worked on the Ape Entertainment series "U.T.F. (Undead Task Force)" with Roriguez. Schlattmann - who wrote a first season episode "Smallville" - was so impressed with Rodriguez's work on "U.T.F." that it led to them working together. "I had a feature script in development with Ralph Winter Productions ("X-Men," "Fantastic Four") over at 20th Century Fox and I contacted Tone Rodriguez to do some art for the script," "The Dark Defender" writer Tim Schlattmann told CBR News. "It was a great creative experience working with him, so as this episode began to take shape and when we decided we'd need an actual rendering for The Dark Defender, Tone was my first choice."
The collaboration didn't end there. As Schlattman told CBR News, one day he visited Rodriguez's Los Angeles studio and writer Dan Wickline ("30 Days of Night: Dead Space," "Strange Cases") happened to be visiting as well. After spending time with the two of them, Schlattmann thought it would be fun if they were actually included in the episode. Wickline ended up playing the dead guy in the comic shop, while Rodriguez found himself hunted down as the prime suspect - in the episode it turns out the duo were locked in the kind of fierce online debate over comics that happens time and time again, but this time it ended in murder. "I thought by including the two of them, we could make things a bit more special and add some credibility to the show," said Schlattmann.
Schlattmann's been reading comics since he was seven years old and, if he had his way, DC's Sea King would have been an instrument of death in "The Dark Defender." "My favorite super-hero is Aquaman," admitted Shclattmann. "I have this heavy, pewter Aquaman snow globe in my office and one day I picked it up and had the thought, 'Wow, this thing could easily be a murder weapon' because of its weight and this edge it has."
Alas, Aquaman the murder weapon was not to be. "For obvious reasons, because of how the globe was going to be used as a murder weapon, we couldn't clear the use of it, so the Aquaman snow globe became the Mariner via our art department who made a new snow globe," explained Cerone.
Indeed, trademark and copyright clearances were something of an issue in creating a fake comics world for this episode. The Dark Defender wasn't the first name the writing staff considered for their fictional vigilante. "The Dark Defender as a name is a little on the generic side, but it was one we could clear," said Cerone. "A couple of other names we considered were The Eradicator and Judge Justice. They seem to be all taken to some degree.
"The Dark Defender was also a bit of an homage to Dark Passenger, a character created by Jeff Lindsay in the book 'Dexter' is based on, and also a little bit of a nod to Frank Miller's 'The Dark Knight Returns,'" continued Cerone.
While the comic side of the story might play a minor role in the episode, the minds behind "Dexter" feel their title character has a lot in common with our favorite heroes. "On a certain level I think Dexter really is a comic book style character," said Cerone. "It seems like the best super hero comics are all about a power fantasy. With Dexter, what he's able to do is he doesn't have any inhibitions. So many of us would love to take the law into our own hands and he's able to do that. What makes him so provocative is we're never really sure why he does what he does. Is he a killer with a dark, intense need to kill and does he just channel it into killing bad people because that's the way his father taught him to survive, or is he also killing because he provides a certain service to society and it feels good to kill bad people?
Cerone continued, "The more we sat around and thought about Dexter, we discovered he has many of the staples of a comic book character - he has a secret origin, a secret identity, he feels like an outsider and a mutant in this world - that's because he's a psychopath, of course, but none the less he's an outsider and he even has an arch enemy in Sgt. Doakes. He really does embody some of the classic super-hero qualities."
"When we were discussing this in the writer's room, we decided maybe there was something more there to let Dexter explore," added Schlattmann. "One of the themes in season two is simply that of good versus evil, a classic staple of comic books. So we have Dexter wondering, 'Well, I always thought I was this bad guy, but what if I am a force for good? What if I'm different than what my father thought I was?'"
While on the surface it may seem like Dexter shares some qualities with Marvel's Punisher - who, after witnessing the murder of his wife and son, turned to a life of vigilantism - Dexter's moral code is a bit murkier than even that of Frank Castle. "What I think pushes Dexter a little farther and darker is he is a killer unapologetically," said Cerone. "I don't know if this pressure exists in the comic book world, but if there is any pressure to find morally redeeming qualities in your character, Dexter doesn't really labor under that. He is a serial killer. It enables us to probably go a little darker with him."
It's not just "Dexter's" writing staff that's influenced by the world of comics. "Comics have always been part of the auspices of the show," said Cerone. "Our Director of Photography, Romeo Tirone, shoots 'Dexter' like a graphic novel. Really bright, vivid colors, low hero angels, lots of light and shadow. There really is a lot of influence from comics on the show."
"Dexter's" connections to comics take place outside the show as well. "Heroes" Writer and Producer Michael Green ("Superman/Batman") told Cerone once that "Dexter" is the show everyone in their writers room talks about, and after seeing that interest extended to discussions on comics message boards, the production embraced the biggest comics party in the world as a means to get the word out. "When we mentioned that interest to Showtime, they did a last minute, guerilla marketing campaign at Comic-Con International this year and handed out a bunch of free 'Dexter' stuff," explained Cerone. "At the end of last season Dexter went into this fantasy mode after he killed his brother, the Ice Truck Killer, and fantasized that we was actually an embraced figure and confetti is falling around him and there's this airplane flying over his head that's pulling a sign that says 'I [Heart} Dexter.' So, at Comic-Con, Showtime handed out bumper stickers and buttons with that phrase and had a plane flying over head one day with the sign from the season finale."
Schlattmann added, "Next year, Showtime is planning a much bigger presence for 'Dexter' at Comic-Con and there has been some discussion of perhaps some graphic novels that may explore Dexter in his early years or taking it in a different direction, maybe along the lines of 'The Dark Defender.'"
At the beginning of "The Dark Defender" episode, Dexter says, "I never really got the whole super-hero thing, but lately it does seem like we have a lot in common - tragic beginnings, secret identities, part-human, part-mutant, arch-enemies." After spending some time with Dexter, you might come to the same conclusion, but we seriously doubt his spandex clad brethren would embrace him with open arms.
New episodes of "Dexter" air Sunday's at 9:00 PM on Showtime. If you missed this past Sunday's episode, "The Dark Defender," it will repeat 10/30 at 9:00, 10/31 at 10:00, 11/1 at 10:00 PM, 11/2 at 1:00 AM and 11/3 at 8:00 PM. Don't forget to watch for brief appearances by industry members Dan Wickline as the victim and Rodriguez as the murderer. And don't miss the further adventures of The Dark Defender today!