While being a superhero can be a high stakes and high stress endeavor, it isn't always all doom and gloom. A group of creators assembled early Saturday morning at Comic-Con International in San Diego to talk about just that in DC's "Lighter Side" panel, which focused on the publisher's line of humorous hero books. Gathered together to discuss the laughing matter was Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti ("Harley Quinn," "Starfire"), "Bizarro" writer Heath Corson, as well as "Bat-Mite" creative team Dan Jurgens and Corin Howell and DC Senior Editor Jim Chadwick.
Moderator Corson kicked off by saying that "10 AM is the funniest time of the day." He then introduced the panelists, Palmiotti, Conner, Howell and Chadwick. Corson said that the audience needs to concentrate on Jurgens so that he may pop up "like Bat-Mite."
Corson asked the panel why comedy books are important, to which Palmiotti said that "comics are supposed to be fun." He continued: "You can't have every book being dark and grim where the hero gets killed and the family gets murdered. You have to have a break from it." Corson noted that he grew up with funny books like "Ambush Bug" and "Justice League International," calling the light-hearted books a palette cleanser.
"I did the dark stuff before and I got bored real fast," said Conner. "Once I started in with the fun stuff, I didn't want to go back. I do like reading the heavy stuff but at the same time it's not all I want to read. I want to read something different that looks at a hero in a different way."
Corin Howell said that "Bat-Mite" is her first book with DC, which earned her a round of applause from the crowd. "My first book with DC has been a huge learning experience," said Howell. "Before this I had only worked on smaller books." At this point, Dan Jurgens showed up.
"I was going to ask you about the horror of working with Dan but he showed up!" said Palmiotti. Howell joked that working with Jurgens is "a drag."
"Working with DC, they help me understand how I can make my work better, how can I make this funnier," said Howell.
"There's a long tradition of humor in comics," said Chadwick. "What I like about 'Bat-Mite' is that it's self-satirical, it's not afraid to make fun of itself."
"On a personal level, I had been writing continuity-heavy stuff like 'Futures End' and 'Convergence' and I needed something different," said Jurgens.
Palmiotti said that he loves getting messages from fans saying that his books give fans a break from the grind of everyday life. "It's important to have that. They should feel taken out of their problems where they smile once or twice," said Palmiotti.
"So often if you go into a shop, you pick out an issue of whatever, and it always feels like it's chapter three of six," said Jurgens. "One thing I noticed with 'Harley' and 'Bizarro,' the humor books tend to have a beginning, middle and end. They're a self-contained unit. There are other elements of the story that continue on, but it's gratifying to read a story that's told in 20 pages."
"It is like watching your favorite sitcom," said Corson. "You can drop in and watch 'The Big Bang Theory' without knowing what went on before."
Corson then asked how hard it is for the panelists to write humor books, saying that he doesn't like writing comedy in a vacuum. "I will unabashedly laugh at my own stuff," he said.
"You've all been in this scenario, when you're at a party and talking to a guy that makes a joke and he thinks he's hilarious," said Jurgens. "My fear is to be that guy when I write. You write something and think it's hilarious and no one else does."
"You want to make sure the joke is not too inside," said Chadwick. "Sometimes that's good but other times you want to be broader. I think my parameter is, 'Did I laugh?' If I laugh out loud, then it's good." Chadwick then added that the art can end up altering how a joke plays, and it may need tweaking based on the image now associated with the words.
"For me, it's having to find inspiration. How much exaggeration should I put in these characters' expressions? I have to go back and watch cartoons," said Howell. "Like the latest one with Damian Wayne and Bat-Mite, I pushed the envelope of how I can capture the characters. The challenge is bringing out their reactions to everything."
"Jimmy and I just love to observe the world around us," said Conner. "We see something that is normal to most people and find it to be very funny -- "
"Like cancer," joked Palmiotti. "Is it too early for that? Cancer's not funny."
"Too soon, Jimmy," said Conner with a smile. "I let Jimmy do a lot of the heavy lifting because every day he makes me giggle."
"Cancer's not funny, we're gonna kick its ass, right?" said Palmiotti, eliciting surprise applause from the audience. "With 'Harley' and humor, people say we're doing jokes, but it's a grounded book. There's a whole scene in one book where she has to get a cab. The humor in it comes from the absurdity of life. We know the joke works when Warner Bros. red flags it."
"For me, I know what it's like to be Bizarro, who wears his heart on his sleeve and wants everyone to love him but he can't make anyone understand him," said Corson. "Bizarro is me in middle school, a little fat kid that wants to be loved." Palmiotti then got the audience to "aww" and cheer for Corson.
Corson then went back to the DC presentation, which started with "Starfire" #2. "I think the thing about Starfire is that her whole story is a fish out of water one," said Conner. "She's an alien and she's trying to fit in with our culture, so it's a big learning curve for her. She does things that are normal to her and Earthlings around her are telling her she can't do it. It's her trying to fit in. She's been around superheroes and now she wants to be around regular people."
"We're big fans of 'Teen Titans' cartoon," added Palmiotti. "There's no way we can do this without acknowledging [that version of] the character." The cover for "Starfire" #3 popped up next, an issue that will feature a bad guy that wants to make a mess of Key West. Palmiotti said that Atlee will return in the issue too, saying that she's in the book and has been in Key West since "apparently the end of 'Power Girl.'"
"Bizarro" #2 came up next, with Corson explaining that the series is Jimmy Olsen and Bizarro in "Planes, Trains and Automobiles." "Bizarro is done in Metropolis," said Corson. "He's screwed up so after a conversation with Clark Kent, Jimmy gets the idea that he will escort Bizarro to Canada because that's Bizarro America. Jimmy thinks he'll get a good coffee table book out of this, so now they've hit the road. They're stumbling through the DCU and they end up in Gotham City, Central City, Starling City -- with Bizarro wearing a 'You Have Failed This City' shirt and smiling. It's them shopping at Lex-Mart, it's a real fun book. In issue #3 we land in Old Gold Gulch, a town populated by ghosts." Corson said that the old 'Jonah Hex' character El Papagayo will pop up in the issue too. Corson said that issue #4 will find them in Branson, Missouri and will see Zatanna perform -- a magician known for speaking backwards -- and understand what she's saying.
Jurgens spoke about "Bat-Mite" #2, saying that part of his mission is to fix "broken" heroes. "This is the story of Bat-Mite trying to make Hawkman work, which is based on creators always have an idea of how to make Hawkman work," said Jurgens. "'Bat-Mite' #3 is Bat-Mite and Damian. Bat-Mite finds Damian to be a sour puss little kid, and the whole issue is about Bat-Mite trying to make Damian smile. What we have coming up in 'Bat-Mite' #4 is a character you might have heard of -- Booster Gold. Issue #5 is Bat-Mite trying to fix the Inferior Five -- a team that is really broken."
Chadwick spoke about what's coming up for "Batman '66," saying that, "from day one, Jeff Parker wanted to retrofit new characters into ''66.' One of the first we did was Harley Quinn; Jeff's been seeding it throughout the series and it finally paid off. We turned her into a roller derby girl. We have an issue coming up with Poison Ivy and we're working on a fun issue with Bane where he's a lucha libre. I think for Poison Ivy, we were sorta thinking of evoking Ann-Margret for her '60s look."
When the panel was opened up to questions, the panel talked about the craziest things they've thought about having their characters do. "With 'Bat-Mite,' it really is a Chuck Jones kind of cartoon. He can reach in his utility belt and pull out a Sherman tank," said Jurgens. "The laws of physics don't work for him. In the first issue, Bat-Mite says that Batman is a one-percenter and my editor at the time said that Bat-Mite can't know that Batman is Bruce Wayne. I said that if we're having this conversation, we shouldn't have the book; Bat-Mite knows."
The panel then addressed a question about how they chose these lead characters for humor books, considering that some have less than comedic histories. Corson said that he had a list of characters he wanted to write when he met with an editor, and after running through a bunch he was asked if he had a Bizarro pitch -- and he did, which became the series.
"I think it was unintentional," said Conner about "Starfire," "but it worked."
"I don't consider it a comedy book," added Palmiotti. He then said that he and Conner were approached to see how they would handle a Starfire series and that they're writing it like a superhero book with comedic moments.
Corson then addressed a question about "all-ages" comics, saying that he approaches "Bizarro" as if it's the Pixar definition of "all-ages" and that it's appropriate for both kids and adults. Jurgens said he never knew "Bat-Mite" was going to be all-ages, and joked that there should be a "Bat-Mite: Uncut" edition with all the stuff they had to take out. Howell said that she saw a little girl at her comic shop in Georgia find "Bat-Mite" and tell her dad emphatically that she wanted it. Howell loved seeing the girl and her father both read and laugh at the book.