Monday, October 10, 2011

Dan Didio: Comics and Controversy

Words: Christopher Irving
Pictures: Seth Kushner

“When you’re telling something controversial and everybody embraces it, then you must’ve taken some shortcuts or made some mistakes along the way,” Dan Didio says from the seventh floor lobby of DC Comics, surrounded by Superman-themed props, like a chunk of Kryptonite, a phone booth façade, and a Superman mannequin suspended from the ceiling. “But if you try to expand it out so that you have so much reaction and they can’t wait to see what happens next, then you’ve accomplished your job. The last thing we want in anything we do is apathy, and the last thing we want to see is that nobody cares. That’s the easiest way to lose an audience, and not something we want to do.”

Dan’s talking about Identity Crisis, the 2004 comic book that pitted the long-standing DC Comics superheroes against their worst enemy yet—the moral dilemma that stems from blurring the line between good and evil. Identity Crisis, written by novelist Brad Meltzer and drawn by Rags Morales, started with the violent murder of second-tier hero Elongated Man’s wife Sue by a mysterious assailant close to the heroes. As the superheroes’ loved ones are targeted, it’s revealed that Sue had been earlier raped by a supervillian, resulting in that’s villian’s brainwashing at the hands of a group of superheroes. It injected a dose of post-Watchmen post-modernism back into the DC Universe, and solicited a mixed bag of reactions from fans.

“I love the fact that there were multiple reactions to it,” Dan admits. “If we do one story that feels the same way to everybody, then we probably didn’t tell it well. Given the breadth of our audience, given the diversity of our audience, you’ve got to be able to incite people in different ways. Our goal is to just tell good, strong stories that we can stand by and feel proud of and Identity Crisis is one of those. The fact that people loved it and hated it is exactly the reaction you want from things like that.”

Identity Crisis was Didio’s first big splash as Vice-President of Editorial at DC, a position he took in 2002, during his run as writer of Superboy with friend and neighbor Jimmy Palmiotti. Although a lifelong comic book fan, Didio started in television in the early ‘80s, working on everything from soap operas to animation. Didio is one of the few high-ranking editorial figures in comics who came in from outside the field, and that’s not exactly a bad thing.

The events of Identity Crisis redefined character relationships in time for the next big event, Countdown to Infinite Crisis, a single comic that ended in the death of minor league superhero Blue Beetle and sparked off four mini-series which each worked up to the company-wide crossover Infinite Crisis. Infinite Crisis launched a series called 52, a ground-breaking weekly comic book that featured a cast of lower-level characters who were more easily relatable than icons like Superman or Batman

“One thing that I tried to do when I first came in here was what we used to call the uber-story, or the big story: something that could underlay and bring the cohesiveness of the universe together and then move the entire universe together as a whole,” Didio reveals. “We put out a lot of product, and there are ways to make Superman interesting and Batman interesting, and there are ways to make several of the other character exciting. But, truth be told, if you want to make things exciting, you have to find ways to make those secondary characters sing, to make them feel important, and make them valuable to the over-arching universe. That was one of the things we tried to accomplish.

“[It is] storytelling in the sense of going back to the pure basics. What I saw during my days in soaps is to try and build soap opera aspects—the highs and lows, interlocking characters, and then using them to tell the social sensibilities of the world and being able to use a set of different characters and putting the problems of the world on them, so you could see it through their eyes and get the scope of what people are feeling at the time.”

Bringing the problems of a super-powered world down to street level is a trademark in Didio’s early projects: Identity Crisis dealt with problems on the most human level, creating perhaps the most intimate character crossover in the history of superhero comics; everyman superhero Blue Beetle is the focus of Countdown (making his death that much more controversial and felt by fans); 52 took a small army of second-tier heroes and used them to define the DC Universe on several levels, be it in outer space or the streets of Gotham City.

Didio’s television-inspired mode of storytelling was a natural for the weekly comic, particularly given the vast ensemble cast of a decades-old comic book company.

“When we created the storyline that went from Countdown to Infinite Crisis to Infinite Crisis, we were really building stories month by month, quarter by quarter, and bringing the cohesiveness of the universe together as we were leading to the big event,” he says. “The other thing that we did, that was a big challenge to me and one of my favorite accomplishments, was 52. I looked at the speed of the distribution system, and we delivered comics to stores every week, but we’d never tried to deliver to the speed of our audience in the way they went and purchased comics. What I’d see and what we tried to do in putting 52 together was that we actually took a production methodology used in animation’s building episodic television, and we rolled that into working on 52. We used a staff of writers, so that we had a group of writers working on each issue, so it wasn’t just one person carrying the load of each book; we used storyboard artists so that we could hand the books out to different artists, so in case one guy ran behind, there was consistency in style and look. That was when we first built 52, off of the model of television, and that really worked because it came together well.”

            Just as television shows create spin-offs, Infinite Crisis was used as a platform for a handful of new characters to debut in their own titles, particularly a new Blue Beetle and Atom. Unfortunately, both titles were eventually canceled due to low sales: the critically-acclaimed Blue Beetle reached #36 before cancellation (still making it the longest-running title for that character since the 1950s), and The Atom lasted twenty-five issues. Both characters were examples of Didio’s editorial edict to diversity the DC Universe.

“Sometimes we rush new characters out too quickly to support their own series when they weren’t ready,” Didio admits. “Look back to the earlier days when Marvel rolled out Punisher and Wolverine [in the ‘70s]: these aren’t characters that got their books from day one, they spent years developing their characters and building an audience for them, so that when they did come out in their own books, people were excited for them. That’s something we’re doing a little bit more now. We’re taking more time to layer these things in, but also have more ideas on how to expand the scope of the DC Universe. My hope is that everything we do, whether it’s successful or not successful, achieves a goal of good storytelling, and achieves a goal of adding diversity to the whole landscape of the DCU, and we’ve won in that fashion.

“My only regret is in some of those cases when we close out a book, we sometimes eliminate that character or push that character aside to the point where nobody uses it; I think that’s a mistake. We did it right with Jason Rausch [Firestorm], we did it wrong with Ryan Choi [The Atom]. My opinion is that we’re always going to keep trying to broaden the scope of the DC Universe.”

            Interestingly enough, Beetle has met with the most commercial success outside of comics, often featured on the cartoon Batman: Brave and the Bold, earning a handful of action figures, and guest-starring in an upcoming episode of the TV show Smallville.

“The first thing we didn’t want to do—and I felt strongly about that character, and still feel very strongly about him—was that even though his book might not have succeeded, it does not mean the character was bad,” Didio says of Beetle. “You cannot go running backwards every chance you get. Our goal right now is to be looking forward and moving the line in a forward direction with a sensibility that matches what’s going on in the world today.”

            Since his rise to editorial power at DC, Dan Didio has managed to create a more cohesive comics universe, with intersecting characters and story elements, moving beyond the simple model of the trade paperback-geared monthly comic. His experiments in the weekly comic book format continued over a three-year span—with 52, Countdown, and Trinity—each of which had its own share of criticism and praise. Just this past year, DC went to a bi-weekly format with it’s company-wide book Brightest Day (which, in natural Didio-edited fashion, organically grew out of major crossover Blackest Night) and Justice League: Generation Lost (also spinning out of Blackest, but a bit less so). Both titles feature secondary characters, with Justice League starring the B-listers that populated the title in the 1980s.

“There’s less background to those characters and also more flexibility,” Didio cites as the narrative strength of these secondary characters. “Because we have such a wide variety of characters at DC, we can actually pick and choose the characters we think work best for the type of story we want to tell as we’re doing it. That’s one of the things that’s extraordinarily helpful.”

Love or hate what he does, Dan Didio is changing the format of the regular “floppy” comic book, a format that is on the verge of dying. While he’s more the print guy and Co-Publisher Jim Lee the digital, there’s a high likelihood that the weekly format will find even more success in the ever-expanding digital comic book marketplace.

“When we start anything, we build to make any character a big player in the DC Universe. That’s your hope on every book you put out, to make them feel important.”

The late ‘80s and ‘90s saw a changing of the guard of most of the older superheroes, with The Flash, Green Lantern and Green Arrow all being replaced by younger characters. Come the 21st century, all three characters were brought back at DC, particularly the long-suffering Green Lantern Hal Jordan.

Jordan had been poorly managed over the past twenty years, in a narratively-tangled nightmare. Writer Geoff Johns brought him back in 2004’s comic book Green Lantern: Rebirth, which then launched him into a new regular series.

“Our primary goal was to explain, with a level of clarity and excitement, why Hal Jordan was the premiere Green Lantern and why we brought him back,” Didio reflects. “After several years of how the character had been used or misused (depending on who you talk to), we wanted to reestablish him as a key character of the DC Universe and explain why he was the best Green Lantern. We did it extremely well. What Geoff was able to do was take that strength of Hal Jordan and build out his world to where it is right now, where it’s just catching a wave.”

Green Lantern was a runaway hit for DC, with Johns rebuilding Jordan from ground-up, all the time reinventing the cast of characters and myth surrounding the Green Lantern comics. For the first time in years, Green Lantern felt important and had an impact at DC Comics.

“The good news about Green Lantern is that he always had the potential to be big. There was a point of time in his history where he was able to support three books and a quarterly book on a regular basis, between the multiple characters playing that role and the different corps going on. We always knew that Green Lantern had potential, and felt that with Hal Jordan coming back and the rebuilding of the Corps (which is probably more important that Hal coming back, in some way, because it shows the breadth of the universe) is what helped make this the hit that it is, because we really saw the full potential. Geoff saw that full potential and was able to exploit it to tell a story that touched some of the readers.”

The book’s success is reflected in the upcoming Green Lantern movie this summer, starring Ryan Reynolds, with story and design elements coming right out of the Geoff Johns run on the comics. It’s a reflection of the evolution of today’s comic book companies into entertainment ones, as an effort for narrative synergy between comic book and film adaptations is finally being made.

In 2009, DC Comics’ parent company Time Warner AOL restructured the comic book company into DC Entertainment, in an attempt to bring digital and film aspects into a cohesive new company. Green Lantern is the first DCE film, and start of the company which Didio had been promoted to Vice President and Co-Publisher of.

“To be perfectly honest, I like to think the books affect DC Entertainment. It’s the other way around, if you want to be straight about it,” Didio smiles.

“Where we stand is that we have eighty titles to put out on a monthly basis, so we have to move stories and characters, and also try different things. Someone who is making a movie or a TV show has a specific goal in mind, and there’s a very specific story that you need to have in mind in order to achieve that goal. With us, we’re moving very quickly so that we can try different things and different characters. If it doesn’t work, we can close things down and try something else over here. We should always keep ourselves flexible and always try to keep ourselves exciting as possible. We’re at the core of the idea, and we want to make sure that we’re constantly refreshing that core with new ideas, so that we’re exploring other areas in the company.”

One of those other areas, and arguably the most important to happen to comics since the graphic novel format, is the digital platform of readers like the iPad. The digital comic shop is on a course to completely change the comic book reading experience; DCE named Jim Lee as Didio’s Co-Publisher for digital.

“Jim is an incredibly smart man and such a visual thinker,” Didio notes. “He is so plugged into the digital world that he’s looking at creating product for digital first, and looking at product that works for those screens and that format, how to change the story so that, even if you change the direction of your iPad and how the art changes. I think that’s one of the great things with that, and that’s something you’ll see coming up ahead.

“I think just creating comics monthly is great right now, but that you have to create comics for the medium and the audience.”

A month after this interview, DC announced the "New 52," their company-wide relaunch; starting with new #1s and many new backstories, the New 52 has had mixed results yet strong initial sales. It hasn't been fully embraced by the readership yet but, for Didio, that's a healthy thing.