Chuck Dixon has been in comics for a relatively long period of time - something close to 15 or 20 years. But his style of writing is unmistakable. It's one of fast-paced, ride by the seat of your pants action/adventure comics. It's unforgiving and unapologetic in its use of adrenaline as a key ingredient to the storytelling. Dixon's own "rules" say that a single comic should have three action pieces in them to hold the audience's attention. You can neatly use those to divide a story into a beginning, middle, and end. Things rarely stand still in one of his stories.
You'd think this would be the cause for some formulaic writing, complete with predictable no-brainer explosions and lame attempts to tug at your heartstrings in the final couple of panels in an attempt to bring enlightenment to the proceedings.
It's not. Don't worry.
Dixon uses his guidelines as just that - guidelines. They don't dictate the story. They don't become a set of rules for a lazy writer to write against. They form the basis for an exciting storytelling methodology.
Dixon has lived in the Batman universe for much of the past decade. Aside from some work with Marvel's PUNISHER, the bulk of his work has been for DC, where he currently writes BIRDS OF PREY, NIGHTWING, and ROBIN. (Yes, he writes the solo books for both surviving Robin characters.) BIRDS OF PREY follows in those same footsteps, as it's basically an extension of the Batman family, and includes appearances from the two Robins. With the recent release of MARVEL KNIGHTS #1 as his fourth regular on-going series, and countless other special projects, Chuck Dixon may very well be the busiest writer in comics, having surpassed Warren Ellis and Brian Bendis and Kurt Busiek.
This week, I just want to hit on a couple of his series, with a reference or two at the end to a couple of the others. We'll start with the book that got me started writing this column in the first place.
BIRDS OF PREY
…is his newest Batman Universe series. Issue #20 just came out this month. Following a series of successful one-shots and mini-series, DC finally gave the Birds of Prey their own book, and it's been a rousing success so far. This one stars Barbara Gordon, a.k.a. Oracle, and her crime-fighting partner, Dinah Lance, The Black Canary. Barbara is the info center, while Canary goes out in the field to bust heads. It's a unique setup in super-hero comics today and really works.
Why does it work so well?
I think on a deeper level, there's a real desire for a true team comic out there today. There are plenty of solo characters running around fighting crime. Many of them are female - take a look at most Top Cow books, for example. Here, Oracle and Canary can perfectly complement one another with their differing points of view. It may only be a team of two, but it still speaks volumes more than any Tom Cruise MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movie "team."
Second, the characterization is strong. Oracle is Barbara Gordon's way to stay active in the super-hero community, despite her paralysis. Birds of Prey gives Canary someone to talk to as well as a source for bad guys to fight.
Third, the book takes place on a global scale. In a post-Cold War era, this is particularly effective. It reminds me a little of the early seasons of MacGyver, when he'd end up in a different communist country every other week to help smuggle out some communist secret or political prisoner. We may not have that going on in the world anymore, but Dixon takes a global perspective on the series, anyway. He focuses on sometimes thinly veiled reworkings of modern-day countries and has Canary and Oracle help to fix things there.
Fourth, the art team is always magnificent. It started off with the regular team of Greg Land and Drew Geraci. They've been overlooked as some of the great artists working today, and that's a real shame. The good girl art is done well, and tastefully. With one exception early on (and a rather nit-picky one it was), they've stayed away from coming up with excuses to strip the clothes off the main characters or to put them in titillating situations. Canary hasn't gone undercover in a strip bar yet, for one thing. (Howard Chaykin's recent syndicated television series, VIPER, only took about three weeks before resorting to that.) Heck, Canary's costume even has a cold-weather adaptation so that her legs are covered. In the hotter weather countries, she sticks with the more classical leotard-type look. (I was going to wonder why shorts never caught on with the superhero set. Then I took one look at the new Marvel Boy and I realize how silly it looks. Never mind…)
When Land and Geraci couldn't produce an issue, the fill-in artist was Dick Giordano. Not bad at all.
The two have now moved over to NIGHTWING, where we all hope they'll find a way to produce 3 straight monthly issues. Jackson "Butch" Guice has taken over the art chores on BIRDS OF PREY. He does a great job drawing the ladies, as well. I'm actually surprised at how good his stuff is. The last book of his I read was his Superman work. I think he was wasted there, surprisingly. This stuff is much better to look at. Plus, he's inking himself, so it gives the work a little different look. It's a more detailed and textured look. It's slightly more to the photo realistic side than his Superman books were.
The big surprise for me here is that after 20 issues, there's still no sign of a trade paperback collection. The stories seem to fit themselves nicely into TPBs of about 6 issues apiece. Mostly, they're three issue arcs. And aside from a collection of the original one-shot and a follow-up mini-series, there hasn't been talk of one. This is a great title, which deserves the same kind of treatment afforded to it as NIGHTWING. The word of mouth on this series is really good. It's what got it upgraded from mini-series to on-going series. I hope that comes next.
Some quick highlights: Last month's issue, the nineteenth, is practically a comedy. It stars poor Barbara trying to keep all the men in her life straight as they all come knocking at her door. Robin, Nightwing, her mystery date, and Jason Bard. (I'm not giving away the name of her mysterious boyfriend because it was kept a secret so well for so long into the book. I don't want to blow it for you now.) These four people know Barbara in different ways and to different degrees. One can't know about her super-hero background. One can't know about the other guy. Etc. etc. You need a scorecard or a darn good continuity memory to keep up with this one, but it's a great payoff. (Oh, and Canary comes in along the way, too, and she brings a whole 'nother set of problems with her.)
Issues #15 - 17 constitute Butch Guice's first storyline, and it's a beauty. Picture this: Barbara Gordon face to face against the Joker, with the fate of New York City hanging in the balance. It's great, tense, emotional storytelling.
Issue #8, drawn beautifully by Land and Geraci, is Dick and Barbara at the circus, hashing out whatever it is that their relationship has become. Really nice, emotional story. Plus, it has a kick-ass cover by Brian Stelfreeze and Greg Land.
Finally, there is a BIRDS OF PREY trade paperback, which reprints the original one-shot the series came from, with art by Gary Frank. That's where it all began, and is worth a look if you want to get in on the ground floor. (Don't worry, though. You can easily hop in with BIRDS OF PREY #1 and have a blast.)
…is the story of the previous prior Robin, Dick Grayson.
DC is keeping this series in print through trade paperbacks. Every 9 issues or so is a new trade paperback. So far, there are three out, covering the first couple of years of the series, including a couple of short stories, like the ½ issue available from WIZARD. Since the regular team of Dixon and artist Scott McDaniel continued unchallenged throughout all of this, you get a book with a pretty consistent feel. McDaniel really is a wizard at these action comics. His movie-tinged sequential narrative deftly combines with Dixon's lightning fast pace. Karl Story's inks are thicker than you'd think would work for a book like this, but provide an interesting look.
The story, in short: Dick Grayson has struck out on his own, moving to the hideously named evil twin city of Gotham: Bludhaven. (I can't reproduce it here, but there are umlauts over the "u" in the city's name. I suppose German settlers founded it.) Bludhaven is as corrupt as they come, its police force on the take from any of a series of rival mobsters, including but not limited to Blockbuster and his mother. (Yes, that's right. The villain's mother is a supporting character.) There's a full supporting cast here, too, from the love interest -- Grayson's landlord Bridget Clancy -- to Detective Soames, a once corrupt policeman who now commits crime with his head twisted around on his body. Let's not forget about Nitewing, a young kid whose idolatry of Nightwing leans in the slightly wrong direction. And, of course, there are the prerequisite visits from Robin and Batman and Oracle and the Huntress.
OK, that's not so short. But it's the best recap I can give you of the issues so far.
NIGHTWING is an on-going soap opera. In the first few issues, we're led up to introducing Clancy. We don't see her for the first few issues. When she does finally "face the camera", it comes as something of a surprise. Over the course of the next two years, the two have a rocky time trying to get together, and by the time you get to the most current issues of NIGHTWING the two are together, celebrating Grayson's graduation from the police academy. That's right, Dick Grayson is a cop now. What better way to keep an eye on a corrupt force? Nitewing first pops up as a troubled youth of the streets in the first year, but is a partner of sorts to Nightwing in the current issues. Detective Soames is just a corrupt cop early on. By modern times, he's a full-blown villain, whose head is on backwards, but who still lives due only to the miracle of comic book medicine and experimental, off-the-book procedures. Oh, and mirrors. Lots of them.
While I was at first put off by the seemingly large cast of characters the modern Nightwing book has assembled, I've come to realize that it's not that big, after all. If you read the trade paperbacks, you'll see where they come from, how they got there, and how they all intermingle. The cast looks amazingly small after four years of continuity. They've all developed nicely along the way, as well.
Dixon sticks with his formula here on a smaller scale. This is all street level, dealing with mostly non-super-powered punks. In a way, it's very similar to a Batman title. This isn't to say costumed villains don't show up. I think Deathstroke and Scarecrow both qualify. But the main super-powered villain uses his super-power of super-intelligence more often than his fists, in controlling his little crime cartel. There are some issues, though, which diverge from the formula just a little bit, and those tend to be the highlights of the run. Maybe it's because they're different that they're so successful, but Dixon does a remarkable job in pulling it off. The first issue collected in the second trade paperback, "Rough Justice", is one long large action scene set piece. It's goons with guns versus Nightwing. They rampage through a closed mall for 22 pages. It's amazing stuff. You'll possibly lose your breath reading it. Whatever you do - set aside the ten minutes it'll take to read an issue like this and don't get interrupted anywhere along the way. Go with the flow. (That particular trade paperback might be the most entertaining of the three so far. Batman figures prominently in the issues, as the strained relationship between he and Dick gets good focus.)
The first trade paperback is "A Knight in Bludhaven," and the third is "Love and Bullets." All come highly recommended, but I would suggest reading them in order. They read through really quickly. Once you start, it gets tough to put them down for long.
ROBIN is perhaps the counterpoint to NIGHTWING. Tim Drake is the slightly more optimistic and brighter version of Dick Grayson. Drake is currently in school. His father is remarrying. His identity is a secret to one and all, which creates friction with his band of merry teenage superheroes, YOUNG JUSTICE. His adventures take place in wild and wooly suburbia at a boarding school. In that unbelievable comic book tradition, super villains find their way out there, in any case. Or, at least, Drake goes back for the villains. In many ways, the character has morphed into something closer to Peter Parker than the traditional Robin, who just spent his time as the ward of the Wayne estate. This Robin is striking out on his own a bit more, due to the influence of his still-living father.
MARVEL KNIGHTS just debuted three weeks ago. It's got the corny comic book setup of a team of disparate characters getting together through accident and sticking together, united for a common goal. Personally, I love that setup. It allows us to see how different characters we wouldn't otherwise see together get along. Let the fireworks commence! And that's just what Dixon has promised with this series - this is not a cohesive team unit of people with mutual respect for one another. It's too early to judge from the first issue how good this series is going to be. The Dixon formula doesn't get a real chance to shine here, since he's kept busy introducing all the various team members into the book. Eduardo Barreto's artwork is nice enough to look at, though.
There's more. I'm only sorry I can't get further into ROBIN or MARVEL KNIGHTS, but it's too early on either of those title for me to start a massive review. I just started reading ROBIN again after a break of some 50 issues. The earliest issues, with art by Tom Grummett, are pretty darned good, though, and soon will be collected into a trade paperback.
For more Dixon mayhem, check out his official web site at www.dixonverse.com. You'll find a wealth of stuff there, including his "10 Commandments of Comic Book Writing."
While you're surfing around, check out www.canarynoir.com for a BIRDS OF PREY-themed website.
And next time you read BATMAN GOTHAM ADVENTURES or BATGIRL, try your best to tell me that Scott Peterson didn't learn much of his writing style from Chuck Dixon's. Check out any opening sequence in BGA. You'd swear Dixon wrote it.
…go to Joe Torcivia and Marc Bryant (who does some work for PopImage) for helping me fill in a couple of holes in my collection so I could get this column written.
UPDATE FROM LAST WEEK
I got e-mail from Dark Horse after last week's column. Frank Miller's LONE WOLF AND CUB covers will only be the pre-existing versions Miller did years ago. After those first twelve issues, they're working on lining up other such big name artists to draw covers. Look for some names from Maverick in there, most likely. (OK, maybe not Tom Luth…)
Tuesday's column should be chock full of reviews. Trust me on this. I've read twenty new books this week. I'm sure I'll come up with something. Next Friday's Pipeline2 will contain all the corrections you're nice enough to send me on this column. I'm sure there are nit-picks to be had. I just tried to sum up over 150 comics in less than three thousand words. Additional contents yet to be determined.
Have a great weekend and I'll see you back here on Tuesday!