Locked & Loaded: Gray & Costa on the DCU Relaunch

When DC Comics rolled out its 52 new titles a few weeks ago, the publisher did so in waves. Under the cowl of The Edge, retrofitted and reconfigured versions of iconic wartime series like "Our Army at War" and "Blackhawk" are reborn as "Sgt. Rock and the Men of War" and "Blackhawks" while "All-Star Western" resurfaces as the home of Jonah Hex and the rest of DC's posse of Western heroes and outlaws.

CBR News connected with Justin Gray ("Jonah Hex"), who is co-writing "All-Star Western" with his long-time collaborator Jimmy Palmiotti, and Mike Costa ("The Transformers"), the writer of "Blackhawks," for a candid conversation where the two men shared their opinions on everything from the DCU relaunch as a whole to which series they consider must-buys come September.

Gray and Costa also unleashed their views on why superheroes still dominate the marketplace and how digital comics could rebuild the hardcore comic book fanbase.

CBR News: I wanted to kick things off with your thoughts on the DCU relaunch as a whole. Is this history in the making come September, a huge gamble for DC Comics or something in between?

Costa: It's definitely exciting for me because this gave me the opportunity to work for DC, which is something that I've wanted to do for a long time. I've never had the opportunity before, for one reason or another. But there was an opening and they thought of me, so that's awesome. This being my first book and the fact that it's being published as part of this relaunch, even if it's the 52nd best-selling book that they come out with, it would still be awesome. It's great for me. I have a new #1 coming out in September and I'm a part of this huge thing that DC is doing -- one of the biggest things that anyone in the industry has done in years. It's incredible.

Gray: I'm always happy to have the work. [Laughs] I have no illusions about "All-Star Western" and where it might fall, but that's neither here nor there. It's a western, it does X amount of numbers and hopefully it will get a bump of new readers, but I think the market has leveled out the way it is. We're going to bust our ass on the book. We bring our A game to everything we do.

Costa: I have to say, I actually think the book you're doing, "All-Star Western," in particular is something that I wish there was a little bit more of. DC has this massive opportunity with digital day and date and making everything available to everybody simultaneously, with making everything ostensibly accessible by having new #1 issues. It's the perfect time to reach out beyond the superhero fanbase, and to have other genre books, as well. Maybe that's just pie in the sky thinking because genre books have not, in the last 50 or so years, particularly sold well or been popular, but I think comic book companies have been catering to the superhero market so long because that's been the market. It just becomes a feedback loop.

If ever there was an opportunity to branch off and find an audience for something like a western book, this would be it. So I'm crossing my fingers to the fact that maybe we'll all be surprised and maybe your book will do really well -- at least on the download side, where people who don't necessarily have an interest in superhero stuff will say, "I like westerns."

My grandfather watches the Western Channel everyday. I'm getting him "All-Star Western," for sure, because he always wants to read comics because I write them. But he doesn't understand anything about comics. He's like 80 years old, but he'll understand a western. So that's something that I definitely could show him and not be worried that he'd be confused.

Gray: Absolutely. And that's the goal that we always had for "Jonah Hex." Pretty well the goal of everything we do is, hopefully, that you can walk in and not be lost. But you know, I think the key with the downloads is really focused marketing on a wider demographic or a set of tastes that hopefully expands that market, because you are only going to sell so much into the direct market. The direct market is only going to buy so much of a particular genre outside of superheroes. So if there is a way to make more people aware -- I guess it's sort of like when Vertigo started, the label of it being for grown-ups. Not marketing it that way, because it's insulting in terms of saying one thing is for adults and one thing is for kids. But, you know, marketing it for a group of people or putting eyeballs on it that normally wouldn't be drawn to that material. At least maybe not in the same format.

Maybe DC should be taking out ads for "All-Star Western" in "Western Horseman" magazine.

Gray: That would be the most radical ad buy! But I think, just like the way Genius works in iTunes and just the way that certain things are marketed, like on Netflix. If you liked this, you might like that. So because you have the digital capability, knocking into people's space and saying, "OK. You watched six John Wayne movies, you bought a couple of Louis L'Amour books, maybe you want to try 'All-Star Western,' or you bought John Clancy, so you may want to try 'Men of War.'" Technologically, that is entirely possible.

Costa: There are so many opportunities, now, to reach people because of the interactivity and the audience cultivation that goes on with those services, I think. And I really hope that it makes some kind of a difference. I would like to see this become a hugely successful endeavor. Even if I wasn't a part of it. I think "Blackhawks" is going to be good. I don't think it's going to be the #1 book in any kind of reality, so I don't know how much I can realistically expect for it, but it would be so good for the industry for this to happen.

Gray: Absolutely.

Costa: But like Justin said, you just bust your ass and do the best that you can do, and your artists work as hard as they can, and at the end of the day, if you did the best that you can do, hopefully that translates to an audience. Then word of mouth and everything else can sway people away from their normal buying habits or alert people that are used to the medium to start looking at it.

Mike, you mentioned you wanted to get "All-Star Western" for your grandfather. Are there titles amongst this wave of 52 new series that you consider to be absolute must-buys come September?

Costa: Who isn't going to buy "Justice League?" Of course I'm excited for it because it's awesome. Jim Lee drawing Geoff Johns on "Justice League" is incredible. For my sleeper book, I am really excited about "Deathstroke." I have always loved Deathstroke. I think Kyle Higgins is going to do a great job on "Deathstroke." I am really looking forward to that book, in particular, and I am hoping that there can be a "Blackhawks"/"Deathstroke" crossover, even if Deathstroke destroys them all in combat. [Laughs]

He's one of my favorite characters. But honestly, and this is not to kiss an ass over at DC, I am legitimately going to read every single one of those 52 first issues. I don't know if I am going to spend $300 buying them all, but I am definitely going to read them all in some form or some capacity because I don't know what to expect from a lot of them. I haven't seen anything for any of them. I don't get to look at anything. I don't live in New York, so I couldn't even go the DC offices if I wanted to. But I am excited. There could be stuff that's supposed to be great that isn't, and there is stuff that you don't think about that's going to be great. I will read them all. I don't know if I will read all the #2s, but I will definitely read all the #1s.

Gray: I'm interested in "Swamp Thing." I want to see where that goes. You know what, I like a lot of the Edge stuff. Like Mike, I haven't been privy to anything outside of "All-Star Western." Anything that you can read online has pretty well been my exposure to it. For us, with the books that we have, we're not looped into the main continuity of the superhero stuff. It isn't necessary for us to know about that, so I go in with my eyes wide open. Anything can happen, and like Mike said, some things are going to be amazing and some things may not be what you expect. But it's all very exciting to watch it unfold and it's so ballsy to do something like this in the market.

People keep saying reboot, but even from the outside, it doesn't feel like a reboot to me. These are not people that are going to throw away the history of DC Comics and say, "OK. Now Aquaman flies." I do not get that feeling at all. There is always a panic attack that happens online for whatever reason, but it doesn't feel like a reboot.

Costa: They have already confirmed that some details of some characters are changing, but it seems to be that ,broadly, most things are not. They're not throwing away and restarting the entire universe. It's always hard to find a middle ground between the hardcore fans that will lose their minds when they hear something like this and the ability to bring in people that haven't read the last 10 years of comics.

That said, the one book that I'm really looking forward to, more than others, is "Action Comics," because I love Grant Morrison. And Morrison on Superman is awesome. That's the #1 book I'm looking forward to. After that, they are all equals.

You talk about the fans that will lose their minds with these types of changes, but the number of hardcore fans is getting smaller every month, if you believe the monthly sales figures. So really, maybe this decision to relaunch in September wasn't such a hard choice after all.

Gray: That's the fundamental thing in this whole business. You have got to find a way to expand the fanbase beyond the existing borders, and sometimes radical change is needed or subtle changes are needed. Something has to be done on some level.

Costa: It's not news to anybody that all that comic book fans do is read. We've slowly been hemorrhaging readers over the last however many years since the bubble really burst at the beginning of the 1990s, and even after the recovery, there are less and less readers every single year. If it's considered radical to relaunch all the books and then make them digitally available -- to me, that just seems like a very obvious thing to do. I don't know how insane that is. They should have done it a long time ago.

Gray: Plus, you need to be able to understand a modern audience. As fun as it is to have a nostalgic element to this business, it's vital to any business to grow and adapt in changing times, and people's views are different. The Flash in the 1960s is not the same Flash as he is now. I have always felt like there is a lag in culture between what happens in comics and what happens in life. I don't just mean that Batman has a Facebook page. That's not what I mean.

Costa: I'm actually a fan of his Facebook page.

Gray: I prefer the God Damn Batman Twitter page.

Costa: That is awesome.

Gray: That kills me.

When both of your books were announced, they were done so with the other Edge titles, but also under the subhead, "Warfare: Past and Present." Justin, your "All-Star Western" remains set in the past, while Mike, your "Blackhawks" takes place in the modern day. In keeping with the discussion of making books more relevant for today's readers, I'm wondering if you can each discuss the inherent date stamping that occurs when series are set in a specific time period and how you feel this will affect your respective titles in terms of fan interest.

Gray: I can say that I'm jealous of you, Mike. And I'm jealous of anybody who gets to do war books, because that's a genre that I haven't been able to work in and there is so much to be mined there, especially with such a human driven storyline. There are so many complex things that you can do with that. It's always an evolving beast. War changes, and there are so many different viewpoints from different people, which is what Jimmy and I are trying to do with "All-Star Western." We're trying to look at different ways of telling stories within the confines of the genre and yet keep it fresh and interesting and engaging. That's really the main focus we've had since we started "Jonah Hex." The genre is not broken. It just that sometimes when you read it, it's boring. There's a reason why there is only a great western movie every decade or so. There is a lot of space between "Unforgiven" and the remake of "True Grit." There are not a lot of bright spots in there. So there's a huge challenge in doing movies like that. War movies, too. There are more great war movies than there are great Westerns overall, but it's still one of those genres that is so rich and can be developed and strike home with any audience because it's got a universal theme running through it.

Costa: I can't speak for "Men of War," but I am personally really glad "Blackhawks" is set in the modern DCU rather than World War II, because if it was set in World War II, I wouldn't be the right guy to write the book because I don't have the knowledge necessary to write an interesting World War II book. And it's not that I don't think a Blackhawks book set in World War II wouldn't be good, it just wouldn't be good if I wrote it.

Why do you think it is that in comics, men and women flying around in capes and tights are considered mainstream while war books and Westerns are, and I use this term loosely, the fringe titles? Is it because we can get warfare and weapons 24 hours a day on CNN and FOX and superheroes, well, not so much?

Gray: That's a complicated question.

Costa: Yes, it's a very complicated question, and I will try and answer it as briefly as I can. I think the one thing that comic books still do better than even movies, still, is superheroes. There can be great superhero movies, and there have been, and I think in the past 10 years we've finally arrived at the point where they are pretty convincing and the set pieces that they can generate are very good, but still you're very limited with a movie to create an arc for the characters and have three distinct acts and all of these things. Superhero comics can break out of that and really go kind of anywhere. I think that's why superhero comics tend to dominate the comic book market, because they work there better than anywhere else. That said, I think another reason why they dominate the market is because of nostalgic reasons. People that grew up reading comics tend to really enjoy the comics that they read.

I actually work on "G.I. Joe" with Chuck Dixon. I was talking to him recently while we were at a signing together and I made some joke about him working on "Nightwing." I was like, "Yeah, that's when comics were good." I was just kidding, and Chuck said to me," You know when comics were good? Comics were good when you were 12." That's one of the smartest things that anyone has ever said about the industry. Because that's true. Everybody remembers comics from that age when they first got into them and remember how great they were then. I think that hamstrings the industry more than any other industry and is a big reason why there is so many superhero book and other genres take time to take root.

Obviously things like Robert Kirkman's "Walking Dead" and Brian K. Vaughan's "Y: The Last Man" have really found big markets of their own, but when all of your readers want to read superheroes, it's hard to give them something else. I think that's a big part of it.

Gray: I totally agree with that. I think that you can go back to the superhero machine that was Stan Lee and the way that he marketed everything and engrained it so beautifully into people's minds about the way that superheroes are presented and the culture of it. But you also have the readership of romance, war, western, all that stuff sort of stuff which died out more than anything else because when we were kids, 90 percent of what you could get was superheroes. It was at the forefront of everything.

It's tough for me because I always go back and forth. We keep "maturing" certain genres because we don't want to move on beyond them. And that's fine. I have no problem with that. But there should also be diversity. There should be diverse tastes. I know a lot of the superhero stuff, and I've had this complaint about stuff I've worked on, they want escapism. The big complaint is escapism versus reality. "If I want reality, I can see the news. I want to escape reality." I think that's one of the things that help shape the market is that it's presented as fantasy, its own sort of fantasy universe that you escape into. And there's the ongoing nature of it too. It never ends. Superman is Superman and Batman is Batman and they go on and on and on and on. So you have that engrained sense of audience. The only problem is that it doesn't expand out to kids because a lot of material, I don't believe they relate to, because it doesn't structure into society. Again, Batman's Facebook page thing is not enough.

I think that's one of the things that Morrison really brings to his work. "All Star Superman" felt fresh and unique and exciting, yet it had so many elements from the past in it. They were just remixed into a much more -- I don't even know the right word to describe it. It was something that worked. It was something that you could see someone picking up that didn't even read comics and saying, "I always thought Superman was this stuffy do-gooder." But there was just so much emotion and pathos. A lot of times, it's hard to do that. It's hard to get away from just putting a costume on someone and just saying they're different because their power scheme is different.

You've spoken with great passion about the DCU relaunch as a whole and why you think the time was right for such a historic step, but I'd be remiss if I didn't give you a few minutes each to pitch fans on your two series, "All-Star Western" and "Blackhawks."

Gray: We're almost at "Jonah Hex" #70, and in the last year, I've seen so much growth and interest in the title. I'm just hoping that people will take that interest and expand it further, because "All-Star Western" is going to be a broader-based project. It's not going to be done-in-ones. And I'm hoping people aren't going to come on too late. I don't want to go through that again. Just give it a shot. Jump in there. I'll admit, I was scared when I heard "All-Star Western" because we don't just tell western stories. So if you like westerns, this is for you but if you don't like westerns, this isn't just a cowboy spitting at a dog. There's a lot of stuff happening in these issues where it's real drama, real human stories and it's got some really cool elements, especially having Hex working with Arkham. You have to look at that and say, "Psychologist and sociopath team-up -- that's going to be fun to watch."

And I have to say, Moritat's stuff is just amazing. I can't believe it.

Costa: Full disclosure: I have not read anything that Justin has done on "All-Star Western." I haven't seen anything, but I can say regardless of that, that's the book that there should be more of and I am really looking forward to it. For sure.

Now, I have to pitch my own book! For "Blackhawks," first of all, Ken Lashley on art is killing it. The sketches and the art that I've seen are awesome. I'm writing stuff into the book to incorporate any new design Ken just came up with when he woke up in the middle of the night. So the art is going to be incredible.

And the book itself, I think, is going to be a really fun corner of the DC Universe, because it does take place within the DCU. No one has really suggested that it doesn't, but I want to make sure that's clear that it does. It's a corner that really focuses on the technological advancements that occur within the DCU, because other than somebody occasionally burglarizing Star Labs, I don't think you have a place where you're really understanding the scope of what's going on in this universe that's become so much more advanced than ours.

I'm doing a tremendous amount of research into futurism and future technology, which is a thread running through the book. It's also a book about espionage and action and intense emotions, but I think the thing that it does, that no other book is able to do, is really look at where the future is going. The Blackhawks, in a way, are the custodians of the future. We see how that affects all of the people in the DCU.

Gray: Very cool. I'm sold.

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