Launching G.I. Joe, Batman, & Alan Moore Clarity – Chuck Dixon Interview

gijoe

I’ve always been a huge fan of the G.I. Joe and I still have very fond memories of Larry Hama’s work on the MARVEL run. I will generally at least give every incarnation of the line in print a chance and was both incredibly relieved and excited about the recently published zero issue by IDW that represented the publisher’s first handling of the franchise. I reviewed the issue a couple of months ago — a collection of three stories by the three creative teams that will launch the three titles forthcoming from IDW next year. One of those stories was written by veteran writer Chuck Dixon, who will be helming what looks to be the flagship title of the trio.

Anybody who has been reading comics over the last 2 decades is familiar with Dixon. He had his hand on the entire Batman Family in the 90’s from Batman, Detective, Robin, Nightwing, to Bat Girl — indeed he was the writer who would introduce the character that would commit one of the ‘90’s signature moments, the breaking of the Batman, with his Vengeance of Bane graphic novel with frequent collaborator Graham Nolan. He’s also worked on titles like Birds of Prey, Punisher, on several WildStorm titles including launching Team 7 and several other projects for the Big II and beyond.

Currently along with G.I. Joe, he is writing Storming Paradise a title that pairs him with Butch Guice in telling an alternative history tale that depicts a U.S invasion of Japan in WWII.

Chuck Dixon and I talk G.I. Joe, War comics, and clarity.

Jay Tomio — Can you describe your exposure to G.I. Joe either professionally or as a fan before you were tagged to work with the title at IDW?

Chuck Dixon — Well, I owned two of the original 12″ Joes when I was a kid. And I remember when I was older my nephews played with them incessantly. My next exposure to the franchise is when Marvel started the comic title. I was, and am, a big admirer of Larry Hama’s work so I followed the comic religiously. Eventually, Larry was my first editor at Marvel and he was still writing and mentoring the G.I. Joe book. So I got to see some of that from the inside. My next contact with Joe was writing a few issues for one of the books in the Devil’s Due run.

Jay Tomio — I expect the writer who is also writing Storming Paradise — an alternative history title depicting a WWII U.S. invasion of Japan — does his share of research. I was wondering what were your initial steps in this regard as it pertains writing what looks to be flagship title of G.I. Joe relaunch?

Chuck Dixon — I’m a voracious reader on anything having to do with military history. So, I’m conversant with the language and realities. But I needed to read more on contemporary military actions to catch myself up on current-use weapons, military science and slang. I also had to turn from casual reader of Joe comics to participating professional. My sons have been a big help here as they are major Joe-fficiandos.

Jay Tomio — I thought that your contribution to the zero issues was terrific. Though it’s hard to make broad judgment from a small sample, it looks like Cobra is at this point an unknown quantity to even elite operatives. One can conclude that IDW and yourself will be trying to make the organization of COBRA believable and applicable to the world we live in. I was wondering that when you view Cobra in your title, is there going to be an ambiguity in terms of COBRA and its part in how readers will react to their own goals (whatever they may be) or is it pretty much Cobra representing the literal snake in the garden?

Chuck Dixon — I prefer “mystery” to “ambiguity”. Ambiguity is the enemy of good comics. Clarity is an under-rated aspect of presenting comics material.

COBRA will be presented here as a vast, stateless, criminal conspiracy that operates in the shadows. I know that’s what it’s supposed to be. But it was seldom presented that way. Larry did a brilliant job and created a comic of higher quality than any mere toy franchise deserves. But he was stuck with having to roll out his good guys and bad guys simultaneously. Those were the demands of playing a part in a toy launch. But now we can play looser with these pop culture icons that Larry created. We’re not tied to Hasbro’s shipping schedule. So COBRA can be played a lot more mysteriously than previously allowed.

At first, the Joe’s official stance is that COBRA is a myth. But as the stories go on they’ll uncover more and more of the organization. But they’ll probably never be sure of just how large it is or its total structure.

Jay Tomio — What informed the choices for the make-up of the team you used in the Zero issue? Were any of the choices personal choices you felt just needed to be there?

Chuck Dixon — Duke was obvious. I’ve always had an affinity for Beachhead and Flint. Torpedo was put in when there was a conflict with the Joe I initially wanted. Duke and Scarlett are the main focus in the ongoing and I wanted to get one of them on stage here for story purposes.

Jay Tomio — What is the source for this affinity for Flint and Beachhead ? Is it a visual aspect of their portrayal that stuck with you? Beachhead has a great ‘western’ like moment in the zero issue!

Chuck Dixon — Have to admit, they just look so cool. As I’ve gotten into writing them I find stuff I like about both characters.

Jay Tomio — I was a big fan of the G.I. Joe Special Missions comics from Marvel as a change-up from the central title. It highlighted a smaller cast and had Joes dealing with non-Cobra events in a world that certainly COBRA existed. Do you think your run will have a similar quality, or at least perhaps shift closer to variety like that?

Chuck Dixon — I love that comic too! I’m a big Herb Trimpe fan and he and Larry created these action-packed gems month after month.

My book’s more involved with the Big Story. It’s GI Joe vs COBRA in a clandestine world war. And we start at the beginning with the Joes first realization that COBRA is real and means business.

Jay Tomio — IDW also has involved the person who is essentially the architect of G.I. Joe in print form (be it comics or via file cards). I think there is a good amount of potential for story tension and synergy (both ways) with Hama writing Origins concurrently with your title. Is there that kind of close communication between Hama, Mr. Schmidt, and yourself on these titles in terms of storytelling beyond the initial launches themselves?

Chuck Dixon — My two teachers in how to write comics were Archie Goodwin and Larry Hama. Larry and I have always been simpatico on what makes a good comic and I am more than happy to follow his lead in general and on Joe in particular. He’s really put down the template for the whole deal and set the tone for this incarnation. There’s no direct communication with Larry by me. He’s not a guy who likes to talk about his work a whole lot; especially when it’s in progress. I’d only be annoying him needlessly. Andy’s been the go-between. But we’re all on the same wavelength so there’s been no conflict and I don’t expect any. And Andy’s been incredible to work with. My favorite kind of editor. He challenges me when I need it and stays out of the way when it’s all going well.

Jay Tomio — Is this title going to exist in our world in terms of the current political, technological, and social environment?

Chuck Dixon — I think of it as one step removed from our world. All of our world’s reality is there but Joe and COBRA operate under (or above) all that. Certainly the zeitgeist of a world-wide war on terror is there. It has to be. That’s the world we live in. Current politics will be reflected in an oblique way but no one’s preaching here or pushing an agenda. And I, for one, don’t want to do this as an allegory to any current conflicts. We have people fighting and dying to protect us and I don’t want to do anything to diminish their work and sacrifice. Joe is escapist military action and I want to keep it that way.

As for technology, we’ll be out on the bleeding edge. Nothing too crazy. We’ll be presenting a lot of weapons and gadgets and vehicles that will be on the battlefield someday. There’s always that SF element to Joe and we’re keeping that but avoiding those “that could never happen” moments. And, of course, COBRA comes up with some truly frightening technological terrors.

Jay Tomio — I was wondering that as one assumes you’d focus on Joe as soldiers, are their plans to also do the same with the unnamed, uniformed COBRA members. I thought one of the great parts of the MARVEL series were the use of a few Crimson Guards who played major roles in the series (like a Fred VII or the Fred Broca’s in general)

Chuck Dixon — COBRA will very much be a mystery from the standpoint of the characters in my book. We’ll see COBRA only from their perspective and they won’t understand what they’re seeing at first. I’m planning a lot of goosebump moments where Joe fans realize what’s going on long before the Joes do. So, the Joes will be very much in the dark for quite a while. It heightens the suspense and danger for them.

We’ll also see aspects of COBRA through the eyes of Destro as he’s just beginning his relationship with COBRA. He’s a weapons contractor working with them strictly as an outsider. And he provides us with a perspective on them.

Jay Tomio — So, G.I. Joe was formed before the presence of Cobra was known (at least to them). I expect this will be handled in Hama’s titles but is the question why the groups was formed something that plays into your title or is it just essentially another Black Ops group?

Chuck Dixon — Larry ups the ante in his book to present a threat to world security that demands the forming of a covert military organization. By the time we get to my stuff, the Joes are more of a first response military unit rather than a strictly black bag outfit. The Joes can be anywhere on the globe within 24 hours and ready to set up a complete military operation.

Jay Tomio — When you think G.I. Joe what character pops into mind first and why? Same question for Cobra.

Chuck Dixon — Scarlett. Because I’m writing a one-shot with her this week. And I know what’s coming up for her in the series. She’s going to have a very eventful life down the road.

On the bad guy side, it’s Destro. He’s the one I’ve written the most so far. He’s been in my first arc in a large part and I wrote a one-shot movie tie-in featuring him. I love that he’s tied to a family history going back to the 1700s. I want to explore all of that a lot more.

Jay Tomio — Focus on Scarlett, eh? Great! Is there a challenge in writing a female character like Scarlett that’s part of what is essentially an elite special forces/combat group?

Chuck Dixon — For some reason I have an affinity for writing females. Not much challenge there.

Jay Tomio — The whole mandate seems to be NEW. New stories, new origins, new beginnings. Will we see ‘new’ JOES and Cobra members in terms of those we haven’t seen before in comics, toys or the cartoons?

Chuck Dixon — Sure. I’m creating an entire level of support staff for the Joes we’ve never seen before. That means new characters. That said, I’m putting in as many of our favorite Joes as Robert Atkins can stand to draw. And he can stand drawing a lot of ’em. For COBRA, I’m rolling out slower so we won’t see new baddies until further down the road.

Jay Tomio — Is there a difference in mind-set or approach when working on a Joe movie tie-in as opposed to the regular IDW title. How would you best describe the difference in tone?

Chuck Dixon — There’s actually not a huge difference. It’s the same franchise and the characterizations and tone are about 99% the same. The only challenge is to write stories that don’t give away any of the events of the movie. It’s been a balancing act as there’s lots of surprises and twists in the movie and I have to either step around these or finesse them somehow.

Jay Tomio — Is there a specific period of military history that interests you the most?

Chuck Dixon — Lots of ’em. I like anything about ancient Rome. Also the age of piracy. I’m particularly fascinated by colonial wars of the Victorian Age; the Zulu War, the Sudan Expedition and like that. Also the Boxer Rebellion. Recently I’ve been reading a lot on the Napoleonic Wars both on land and sea. A friend once told me that “that way lies madness.”

He might be right.

Jay Tomio — You mentioned the concept of ‘clarity’ above. What writers today do you view as having an understanding of it and employ that concept in a manner you find the most enjoyable?

Chuck Dixon — It’s a short list. Most comics make you work so hard to follow the action and, in the end, there’s very little reward for the effort. So many guys reach for the complexities and edginess of Alan Moore but miss the fact that the guy is a comics craftsman and keeps even the most difficult concepts clear and entertaining. His legion of imitators go for obfuscation and work hard to impress you with how smart they are. Alan works hard to impress you with how smart you are.

Other writers who can move a story along while delighting, rather than losing, the reader are Tony Bedard, Dan Slott, Kelly Puckett, Scott Beatty, Darwyn Cooke, Ed Brubaker, Gail Simone and I’ll leave the list there so that everyone can assume I was going to name them next.

Jay Tomio — Archie Goodwin continues to be a name that pops up in what seems to be the majority of answers anytime I see creators discuss their favorite people or professionals in the industry. In an industry where ‘pariah’ often seems a common term, what is it about Mr. Goodwin that you think make him the editor, writer and person so well admired?

Chuck Dixon — Archie was simply the most gracious, generous and professional guy in comics. I have never heard a single bad word about him. Funny and quick and a wealth of knowledge on comics, movies, music or whatever. I can’t say enough about the guy. Comics lost a great deal of civility with his passing.

On the talent front, he was The Man. Archie was always working to achieve that perfect balance of words and image that makes pure comics. I learned everything about pacing and economy from him. Even when I was a kid I recognized that his stories were different from other writers. He seemed to have more command of the medium than other writers. It was an invisible quality and required reading and re-reading his work until I got an education on comics writing. He is, hands-down, the best writer that Alex Toth, Steve Ditko, Walt Simonson, Gene Colan and Al Williamson ever had.

The most amazing aspect of his work is that he could be dropped in on an assignment with little or no warning and still come up with gold. Particularly when working with Stan Lee, Archie would be given last minute deadlines and mere hours to complete a script. Often these would be mid-story fill-ins. Check out his early Iron Man stories. Archie told me himself that he was given Iron Man by Stan and told to call Gene Colan and give him a plotline over the phone immediately. Slapped together in literally minutes, Archie takes Stan’s established elements and gives them a fresh zing.

Another astounding story by Archie is an issue of The Hulk in which the Hulk has been shrunk to the size of a doll (don’t ask) and is then stolen by HYDRA. The story is a study in rising action and is damn funny to boot as HYDRA finds out that a tiny Hulk is just as dangerous as the king-size version.

Jay Tomio — You’ve discussed your mentors in the industry, however, I was listening to a previous interview and you stated that you always knew you were going to be a comic book writer. I was wondering what the atmosphere was like in comics that so hooked you — what and who were you reading?

Chuck Dixon — I was at the prime age of eight-to-ten years old when Marvel started their superhero titles. That hooked me good. I was devoted to Spider-man and the FF. Even before then I was reading Sgt Rock, Batman, Marvel’s big monster books, Archies, Dells and anything else I ran across. But with Marvel there was a sense that something big was happening. Stan was a genius at promotion and I bought the whole promise that a new age of comics was dawning and I, little be-spectacled me, was a part of it.

Jay Tomio — You’ve worked extensively with Batman and the Batman family in your career. Do you have a favorite arc you were involved with and what do you point to that makes that character such a long lasting institution in this industry?

Chuck Dixon — I have to go back to my Detective run with Graham Nolan. To me, every issue we did was classic Batman. Graham is even a bigger Batman fan than me and we were determined to make our run a career highpoint for both of us. We touched on every classic villain we could manage as well as the traps and fights and theme crimes that make Batman what he is.

Our personal favorite was the three-part Captain Fear arc. It had a new villain, a high concept crime and a cool trap for Batman to escape from. Oddly, our editors hated this story.

Jay Tomio — I mentioned Storming Paradise earlier. First, can you discuss the choice of the actual title?

Chuck Dixon — The Japanese emperor was perceived to be a god and the islands of Japan were thought of as invulnerable to attack because of this. The title seemed to capture the idea perfectly.

Jay Tomio — I’m the son a of a 30-year U.S. Military veteran and also half-Japanese so when Storming Paradise was announced it was a title that immediately intrigued me. It has beautiful Butch Guice art. This strikes me as a great alternative history choice as the “what if?” variable is not a huge stretch. Is this what attracted Mr. Guice and yourself to the project — was it more personal?

Chuck Dixon — Butch and I were dying to do a WWII-themed story. But most comic companies don’t share our enthusiasm. Butch and I are practically crippled by enthusiasm so that was a problem. No one was going to let us do a mini-series on the Ruhr Offensive so we had to have a hook. But neither of us was willing to throw aliens, zombies or Batman into the story juts to make it sexy for a publisher. That kind of “high concept” crap sets my teeth on edge. I don’t want a vampire western. I just want a western, darn it!

I’ve always been fascinated by how the invasion of Japan by the US almost happened. I came across detailed plans for Operation Olympic which laid out how and where the invasion would start. In addition, testimony from the war crimes trials of Japanese officers were recently declassified and they included lots of info on how the Japanese planned to defend the home islands. Now, normally I’m no fan of this kind of “what if?” historical story. The kind that posits, “If Custer won at the Little Big Horn how much would a gallon of milk cost today?” But this event was a real eventuality and we even have the plans of either side to base events on.

It took about a nano-second to interest Butch. It took a lot more to convince Wildstorm

Jay Tomio — Do you have an update on the progress/status of your creator-owned Vanishers headed for live-action treatment on the Cartoon Network?

Chuck Dixon — It’s Hollywood. They move slower than the government.

Jay Tomio — It seems like you have this love for DC war, or war comics in general. Was it that early appreciation for Military history that drew you to the fiction or was it talents like Heath, Kubert, etc or a combination of both? For myself, I just love those beautiful grey tone covers that you’d see from DC war.

Chuck Dixon — DC war comics were the gold standard. They had the characters and the artists. I could lose myself for hours in a Russ Heath Haunted Tank cover. All that detail and bravado. And Kubert had a way of drawing you into a story and keeping you there. I recently re-read the entire run of Johnny Cloud and was surprised at how many of the stories I remembered after forty plus years. Blazing Combat from Warren was the next step up and I read and re-read those issues until the covers came off. Those DC war books were the titles I followed most throughout my childhood and teen years. They simply got better and better. It’s hard to find better examples of comics as an art form than Russ Heath’s run on Rock in the early 70s.

Jay Tomio — Do you think we will ever see an ongoing real-world war book again from the Big II? Or do you think the comment you made previously about respect for our troops is an issue that extends beyond a franchise like G.I. Joe? Is there a social difference that no longer allows for the abundance of war comics even as recently as the 70’s and early 80’s that can only now be sustained or represented by mini-series?

Chuck Dixon — I’d love to think that efforts like Billy Tucci’s current Sgt Rock mini would sell so huge that the companies would have no choice but to start up a war ongoing. But even were it to do X-Men numbers there would be resistance to it. The mood at most of the major companies is more suited to snarky or tongue-in-cheek war comics. Or the mixed-genre kind of war book that includes dinosaurs or wizards.

There’s absolutely an audience for a war book but it’s not one you’ll reach through comic book distribution. That’s all superheroes all the time. And to get a straight-up war book or western in front of the audience ready for it is beneath the interest level of most of the industry’s marketing departments. It takes a more nimble company like IDW to explore this kind of project. I’m hoping that success with G.I. Joe will open the door for more earnest genre books.

Jay Tomio — Do you think that publishers are any less likely to take chances on non-superhero material or are they merely just doing what they’ve always done when they were putting out mystery, war, and horror content in their mainline and simply giving the audience what they think they want? It very much seems to me that they put the material out but are half-hearted with marketing the material to the audience that would be of interest. I know as somebody who runs a with a site that has an innate audience that enjoys straight Mystery, Horror, or Fantasy that it’s been impossible for me to get any reply/reaction from Comic Book Publishers about my own queries to want to do publicity for those type of projects in front of new and I think potentially interested audiences.

Chuck Dixon — There’s obviously interest in putting out genre material beyond superheroes from a number of imprints and publishers. But the core fanbase emphasis is still on superheroes. The big page rates and deals go to the talents who work in that genre. DC is not about to pay Jim Lee his rate to draw a western. Marvel’s not going to ask Bendis to write a historical romance. There’s no enthusiasm or overriding interest in anything other than the super-powered characters.

But that’s extremely short-sighted. Beyond the comics shop the big sellers are seldom superhero titles. Horror, manga, mystery, fantasy, classic reprints and others are the leaders. Vertigo routinely out-performs the output of the DCU. Out in the bookstores and libraries there’s a far broader taste than in the direct sales market. They’re more casual consumers of comics and have no interest in reading multi-volume reprints of the Big Two’s latest super-epic.

As an example, Dark Horse does very well with their Conan books. When I was doing Claw for Wildstorm I suggested that they market it to their outlets as similar to Conan.

“Love Conan? You might like Claw.”

Now, everyone knows that Claw is a third rate knock-off of Conan and I was in no way suggesting that Claw would do Conan numbers. But, if the marketing guys could have gotten even ten percent of Conan’s sales, we would have had a solid-selling volume that would have made follow-up volumes viable. DC could have built a nice little backlist of three or four volumes that would trail in Conan’s wake for as long as that series ran. That’s the way publishers think.

Instead, the limited series and following trade was looked upon with disdain and pushed out there like just another brick in the wall.

Jay Tomio — Lastly, what did you most want to establish with your story in G.I. Joe #0?

Chuck Dixon — Just wanted to get my story off to a kick.