FEATURES

The Darwyn Cooke Interview

ON THE FRONTIER

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NASO: You talked a little bit about New Frontier the last time we spoke, about how long it was taking. Why did you want to create a story set in this time period?

COOKE: I think that New Frontier ended up centering around the time it did for two reasons, really. One was, as I’d mentioned earlier, DC had asked me about doing a Justice League project. There was a JLA: Year One, there were a million different projects and stories that had been done. There was very little ground that they hadn’t already trampled. So it seemed to me the only area that hadn’t been combed over already was the time right before they became the Justice League. And then when I looked at the original publications and that era — the era sort of has always meant a lot to me and I’ve been a bit of a student of it — in terms of history and sociology and you know, design and fashion. So it seemed like a perfect fit to me, and just ideally suited to, you know the types of things I could do with the Justice League that might be worthwhile.

NASO: How much research did you put into it? You said you were a student of history. Did you rely on what you already knew or did you have to do more?

COOKE: I had to do a great deal of research for a couple things: historical fact, or as close to fact as I could get, and an accurate timeline of when all of the world events that were relevant actually took place. And I spent a great deal of time with that and researching that real-world stuff that also involved making sure I got the planes as right as I could. You know things like a Huey helicopter, researching its structure and making sure I’m getting it as close as I can within my style. There was also a great deal of research into DC’s publishing history. Because the conceit in New Frontier was, every character steps on stage at the very same time that they were first published. So I had to research real history and DC history and then kind of lay them over on top of each other.

NASO: Did DC give you old issues to look at?

COOKE: My editor, Mark, would pull whatever I needed. Most of that type of material — I’ve got enough of it here. You know, I have a pretty decent collection myself so, I wasn’t that off on most things; there were some rare books that I had to get pulled. The Dinosaur Island stuff, the Star-Spangled War Stories — at that time, those books were really scarce so I had to have DC pull me copies from their library. The other side of things, just the look of things, the fashion, the buildings and the cars and stuff, there was less research there, because that’s something that I’d really absorbed when I was younger.

NASO: Did all this prep work come after the start and stop problems with New Frontier were solved?

COOKE: Well it happened in two stages because in order to properly convince a company — keeping in mind, this is only my second book — or my second project for DC and I’m basically asking them to commit to 400 pages. So I had to make sure that my outline, you know, it was all there. I had to make sure that it was all going to work and that I could argue it convincingly to them. I couldn’t fake parts of it and then hope to work it out because I just didn’t have the clout to bluff something like this through. So I had to know where I was going on the front of it. There was still, yeah, a great deal of research once we got up and running. It was more or less monthly, as I was doing the books. I continued to research right up to the minute that we were sending out color notes.

NASO: A lot of New Frontier is devoted to Hal Jordan, his heroic life as a test pilot — dreaming in the stars and how he learns to really channel his courage for a purpose. So why did you decide to make Hal the cornerstone of the series and can you talk about what kind of connection do you have to that character, because it seems like you must really like him.

COOKE: I think that Hal Jordan became a cornerstone in New Frontier because of two reasons really. One is that he was a childhood favorite. And I’m really not a big fan of Super Jock stuff. And I really prefer that bent to any of his super characters. But when it came to superheroes, the Hal Jordan Green Lantern was my favorite. That’s the primary reason, I suppose.

NASO: Why was he one of your favorites?

COOKE: He was a jet pilot, he was a test pilot, and he was an intergalactic, you know, cop. What was cool about him too was, he was an incredibly modern design. Gil Kane did something really wonderful there. There’s no man-panties. It’s like a tunic and there’s no cape. There’s no extraneous flap on the gauntlet or the boots. There’s no detailing. And the use of black. It’s just a brilliant-looking outfit. It’s a slick package. And the other real reason that I wanted to make him a strong part of it, was having read “Emerald Dawn,” you know? And nothing against any of the guys who did the project but — unbelievable. And I guess a lot of this was a response to all the retconning that had gone on, people taking characters they had nothing to do with creating and turning them inside out for a sales spike.

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I always thought I’d really like to show people why this character was cool. A lot of DC’s characters I think fell out of step with the times. And in order to see how cool they were, you’d have to be able to imagine them within the time they were created. I think it’s really ironic that when Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams took over the Green Lantern/Green Arrow, Green Lantern was made up as the fuddy-duddy, the conservative. And Green Arrow was the hip guy who was in touch with what was going on. And if you look back to 1959-1960 Hal Jordan is a radical, young, hip character, compared to the fuddy-duddies around him. And I sort of played to that notion with him as a character — he would have seemed really liberal during Korea, but he would seem quite conservative in 1969. He was young, he had a cool job, he had a great gimmick and outfit. And I think he was the one enduring character out of the Silver Age that really represents the space race and that American spirit. Which is, as far as I’m concerned is the last time we see it appear.

NASO : It seems like you show a real human side to him too when he’s fighting in the war and he has to kill one of the enemies even though the war is over, and maybe you could talk a little bit abut that side of Hal Jordan.

COOKE: There were quite a few guys online that took serious offense with the characterization of Hal as a pacifist who is a fighter pilot. And it’s fascinating because I imagine that everybody’s experience is unique and everybody knows what they know. But there were several Air Force veterans who I talked to about this who said it was completely, completely plausible. It was not plausible that a guy could get away with it forever, but it’s plausible that such a guy could make it that far. And I’ve read a ton of accounts on my own of guys who would head out over the sea and, as soon as they were out over the ocean, they’d dump their bombs or empty their guns. You know? There are stories of soldiers in trenches who refuse to fire at the enemy — they fire into the sky, or over the firing line. So it was an exceptional thing but again, it’s a comic book so you’re dealing with heightened drama. I really love the notion of having him be forward-thinking enough not to be a blind patriot. He’s a patriot, but he’s not a blind one. And you know, that rankled a lot of people but I sort of just made him a far more interesting character considering the times. And a very forward-thinking one in comparison to guys like Ace Morgan or Rick Flagg who are the generation before him.

NASO: You said that you talked to some fighter pilots abut the realism in the story. How did you hook up with those people?

COOKE: Well, there’s a pair of guys out here on the coast. And the other guy I talked to about this quite a bit was actually Mike Allred who’s an Air Force veteran.

NASO: I didn’t know that.

COOKE: Yeah, isn’t that crazy? He wasn’t a fighter pilot, but, yeah, he was in the Air Force. He was stationed in Germany for years.

NASO: One of the other characters who struck me in the book, is J'onn J'onzz? He really seemed to develop over the course of the series. And to me, really, he represented a choice. Because he kind of sees our world struggling with good and evil, and then he decides to do good. So how did you see J'onn in the book, and why was it important for you establish this concept of choice?

COOKE: Well, I think that on the most obvious level, he represents the issue of race and alienation, you know, based on the way you look. He makes a very heroic choice in regard to saving Faraday later in the book. And to stay, and to be a force for good. It’s funny because I honestly — I’ve got to cop to this — the other thing he really represents in the story is the power of the media. And you ask why he made the choice to become a good guy? If you’ll recall in the book, he mistakenly thinks television is, like, a fax machine. So he spends a couple weeks sitting in front of it, absorbing everything. So what’s he watching? He’s watching cop dramas, where the bad guys get caught by the good guys. He’s watching cowboy shows where the villains are getting gunned down by the sheriff. The media creates the image in his head of what decision to make. So it’s actually the TV He thinks it’s cut-and-dry and that’s the way it is on earth, because he saw it on TV And that’s why he makes his decision to become the good guy. And it’s not until later in the story he sees, you know, how naïve his understanding is and that it’s not that simple. And, that the choice to be a good guy takes a lot more than what he saw on the television.

NASO: When you were planning out The New Frontier, did you map out stories for each character, and then link them together? Or did it just kind of come about?

COOKE: When you have so many characters to address in a story this large, you can’t help but think of each character individually and like a moment or a sequence or a little story that really helps their character shine. At the time, I was developing the book I’d become interested in the idea of nonlinear narrative, where you’re dealing with jumps in time or location. It’s almost like Memento, or even Pulp Fiction, are great examples of this. The Limey is another fantastic example of it — where a story isn’t told in a particular order or sequence and it doesn’t really coalesce until you get a certain way into it. Although I didn’t think I could sustain something as complex as Memento for so many pages, I love the idea that each chapter is like a separate story, or each sequence is a separate story that kind of shows us a facet of a character. And they can almost be enjoyed on their own, and they don’t seem to relate at all. And as you consume more of them they begin to lace together and one plays off another and one adds depth to another. And they slowly become one story.

NASO: Was there a specific character that really helped merge all of that for you, or that you really enjoyed writing?

COOKE: Well, it was funny because I loved the idea of “It’s Snowing in Vegas” for example. I had the abstract idea in my head of it snowing in Vegas, which to me it's like a comic-book thing, right? In a comic, you can find a way to do that. And the DC universe is so big you can basically think of anything and then there’s a character to complement it. So it’s like Captain Cold behind that, so that means The Flash in Vegas, cool. Maybe this will be the sequence I use to showcase The Flash. And then it builds and I always knew I had the wonderful end of the sequence where it’s snowing, you know, in the middle of the desert. The other one was The Challengers of the Unknown saving the rocket. I sort of dreamed up that stupid idea for a short story that I never got to use. I knew I wanted to do that sequence. I knew I was going to have The Losers meet their fate on Dinosaur Island. And it’s something I really wanted to do, so how did I tie it to the story? That’s when I would do things like have Flag insinuated into that scene and they’re going to the island for a reason and then I seeded some clues that would build into a bigger thing later.

NASO: I love that whole opening sequence when they’re on the island and fighting the dinosaurs. It’s a very different way to open what people would say is a superhero book.
COOKE: I’m going to be honest with you there. I thought it was going to come and go. Six issues and we’d never hear from it again. And I thought, this is the only shot I’m going to get at doing this. I was really worried, too, I was going to turn off a lot of potential readers with the first issue because there’s no “super-fighting.” You know? But we rolled the dice and went with it and it worked out OK.
NASO: It’s Army dudes fighting dinosaurs. That’s pretty tough.

COOKE: It’s also a huge part of DC history. Those stories ran for seven years, during the time we’re talking about. And it’s also, it’s the origin of The Suicide Squad in World War II. They were the guys who had to fight dinosaurs on this crazy island. So it all makes sense within the bigger picture of everything, so it was kind of perfect. And then I came across the idea of the Centre actually being Dinosaur Island. And the dinosaurs on its back are just like food that it carries around. And then these things all started to snap together.

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NASO: It seems like you have a real knack for bringing back old concepts and saying, “This is worthwhile. This is something that can work today. Why is it not here?” How do you feel about that?

COOKE: First of all, you know, thanks. And I hope in the future to prove I’m better at more than that but I think that the secret to it, quite frankly, is that if the concept is a good one, it would sell in the first place. So you want to change a uniform or a hairstyle or even a skin color or a gender — there’s room to do that if the essence of the character is the same as it originally was. And I find the trick to bringing these characters back is to find what was at the heart of them, and just bring it back and let people see it for what it was. This type of book, this genre of comic has become so inbred and so nasty — it’s kind of forgotten the point of its own existence. So a lot of bringing this stuff back and making it seem good is not screwing with it, just adding a little emotional depth to it.

One of the biggest challenges to me was how am I going to make all of these squares seem cool? They’re not all going to be drunk or taking heroin or fucking their partner’s girlfriend. So how do I make them seem cool? By having them do the shit they used to do. And just doing your best with every sequence to make it sing. You know a lot of guys in this business, I think they miss the point. Like in Hong Kong, when they had that huge action-movie explosion through the ’90s: It’s not that they did different things in terms of what’s in the script, right? It’s like, there’s a gun-fight in an arcade; it’s just that they didn’t go in and play it by the numbers. They go in and they go, “What’s the new gimmick? What’s the next level for this craziness?” And they were all going for it. It’s not that the script or the stories are original; it’s the execution. That’s where the intention and the originality is.

NASO: Yeah, I mean I think that’s true of most things. It seems like almost everything’s been done. It’s what new spin can you put on it?

COOKE: Exactly. And so — frankly, a good old-fashioned story where the hero is a hero — that works just fine if it’s a good story and the other characters balance things out. The hero doesn’t have to be pulled down into the adult situations he’s been forced to confront for the last 15 years in order to be interesting. It’s just maybe a little more time and care and heart has to go into constructing the stories.

NASO: You mentioned the hero, and one of the other ideas I think New Frontier faces is this concept of heroism changing with the times. Even though the world’s problems haven’t changed much. So what did you want to say about that in your story? How do you think you conveyed that?

COOKE: It’s funny because the contemporary society often decides the definition of a hero. And for example, in 1945 a hero was a guy who could very easily have killed 45 people. You know? That was part and parcel of heroic behavior at that point in time. And for all the right reasons. A way of life is under attack, etc. etc. The notion of what’s heroic at that point in time is one thing. During peacetime, perhaps it’s another. You know, we’ve seen the American point of view on this kind of thing wax and wane over the years. This taste with these types of things tends to run parallel to whether they’re winning or losing.

NASO: That’s true. [Laughter.] A lot has to do with the media, too, and how they’re going to try to spin it more positively.

COOKE: Exactly. And as far as the nature of heroism, I don’t know that it’s necessarily changed. I think that people just don’t believe in it anymore. I think when people are confronted with it the automatic response to it these days it’s, “What’s the catch?” Or at least it has been for a long time. I just think it’s notoriously out of date to just be a decent person and do the right thing, you know? Lately, there have been some really breathtaking examples of people going against the grain. Like I never would have imagined Angelina Jolie, when she was married to Billy Bob Thornton — I would never have imagined that she would have become the woman she’s become. Such an incredible ambassador for the West. Look at Bill and Melinda, what they’re doing with all their dough. There’re some great examples right now of people who I think are taking heroic action in a modern sense. So who’s to say?

NASO: I don’t how I feel about that, actually, because these people have so much influence. It seems like they have to do that almost, you know? I guess they don’t have to, but …

COOKE: I agree with you, Markisan, a hundred percent. They don’t have to, but most democracies are built on that notion. Vanity Fair last month had an article that paralleled Rome to America in terms of the way it’s set up. And they’re saying both are really dependent on the private sector pulling their end. And you don’t see nearly as much of it as you should. So I guess that’s what I mean: When you do see the ones who are, it kind of takes you back.

NASO: I’ve always kind of been impressed by things like what Bono does. He goes and he’ll make a speech before Congress or different groups. I guess it’s hard for me to imagine if I had that much power and money that I wouldn’t do that. But I guess a lot of people don’t. Because if more people who were wealthy and in the public spotlight were doing that then a lot more problems would be solved.

COOKE: I agree with that. The system that we’re in, too, I mean, it just allows for some crazy shit. During the Sept. 11 situation, DC put out a benefit book and I did a page in the book. It was basically six panels, two per tier. Each tier compared two things. For example, the salary of an infantryman in Afghanistan versus the salary of a basketball player. The salary of an emergency medical response person versus Britney Spears. A firefighter’s salary against the Hollywood actor who plays a firefighter in a fucking movie. And society makes these decisions on how and where to place the value, you know? So we can’t really blame this three percent that we’ve completely empowered and given everything to. [Laughter.] I don’t begrudge a 20-year-old kid a $45 million contract to play hockey. I don’t begrudge him that personally because, yeah, go for it, baby. But when I look at the world at large, I know there’s something incredibly fucked up about that: that people who make $24,000 a year are willing to cheer on a kid who’s getting more money for one year’s work than their entire bloodline will see in 300.

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NASO: I don’t know. If I was that hockey player and I was making that much money — if I made $45 million in a year, I would go to a school and I would give them a whole bunch of money and say, “OK, increase their salaries for this year by this much.” And you just don’t see that happen, because he’s got all his money. He doesn’t need it all, you know? Maybe the media doesn’t publish all these stories of —

COOKE: Well I think a lot of these guys do good work, you know? I’m the same way. It’s not like I donate half of what I make to anybody. You do what you can. And again I would never want to point out individuals because I think everyone’s entitled to make whatever the market’s willing to pay. But yeah, you just think, well, the market’s the thing that’s kind of fucked up.

NASO: Do you think the perception of heroes in today’s society will change or maybe go back to the way it was, given everything that’s going on in the world today?

COOKE: I think it’s inevitable that the pendulum swings. I don’t know how long that would take or what would cause it. Right now, it’s an increasingly difficult time for any authentic or individual heroism because, you know, in the last 25 years we’ve seen almost every sort of outlet imaginable become, you know, amalgamated or conglomerated to the point where there’s incredible corporate control over all the information that we get. And, you know, these companies are set up not to allow heroes to rise. Let’s put it that way. [Laughter.] They’re set up to keep that stuff in check and keep the status quo in place. So I don’t know if there’s much room for heroic behavior with the way society’s structured. But on the other hand when I watch an electoral race or anything of that nature I think all somebody’s got to do is stand up and say the truth, and they’d be an instant hero. The problem is you can’t find anybody to support you to get that kind of message out there.

NASO: One of the things you use in New Frontier is JFK’s famous speech about the new frontier. Can you talk about what that speech means to you and how it defines DC: The New Frontier as whole?

COOKE: I think that when you look at the title of the book The New Frontier, and Kennedy’s speech, which we use to close the book out — It’s important for me to say up front, like right up front: According to my research, my extensive reading — I wouldn’t want anyone to think The New Frontier is an endorsement of John F. Kennedy the man. I think that there was a lot about him that just kind tarnishes anyone’s ability to look at him personally. But I do believe that that speech holds the promise of modern America within it. And I think it’s the first time it was ever properly articulated. That’s the speech he gave when he won the nomination from the Democratic Party.

NASO: And what is that promise, the way you see it?

COOKE: It’s about authentic individuality, I believe when you boil it down. That speech is warning us about the payola mentality, the lack of pride that that had started to set in, and the apathy that was washing over an incredibly vigorous nation. And it comes at a time when the country was really having to come face-to-face with some of the shit it had pulled. So the idea of being a No. 1 — it’s like Edward Murrow says: How are we supposed to tell people half a world away that democracy is the way to live while we can’t even protect our own bloody citizens? But I think the speech speaks about the challenges that would face the country if it decided to take a higher moral ground and to embrace the future in a less adversarial fashion. I don’t know, it speaks to all the great things that lay ahead but it’s also warning us about the all the things that can keep it from happening. It’s also just beautifully written. It’s very inspiring. There is that one line in there: “I stand before you tonight facing West.” You know? It’s wonderfully written. You don’t hear speeches like that anymore.

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NASO: I was just going to say that. We could use one.

COOKE: There’s committees and processors and focus groups and a sea of assholes that keep that type of information from even getting to us anymore. When we look at these shadowy characters that refer to themselves as Democrats right now. You look at these noncommittal, telegenic straw people. And what are they really saying at this point in history? What have they got to say? Nothing. Nothing I haven’t been hearing for six years. It’s remarkable. So, yeah, I guess it’s also probably the last time, the last clean shot America had at thinking that way about itself. After what happens with the Kennedys, with Martin Luther King, with Vietnam. And then Watergate? There’s no way you can give a speech like that with a straight face.

NASO: Right. You can’t go back to it.

COOKE: No, because you’re ignoring the reality of the situation if you do that.

NASO: DC: The New Frontier is really your breakout book. It solidified you as a creative force. How do you think New Frontier’s success has impacted your career?

COOKE: It’s hard for me to measure. The book seems to have really touched a lot of people in a particular way. I can remember when Alan Moore did the Watchmen and Frank Miller did Dark Knight. For the following 10 years, whenever either one of them did an interview, they talked about how they never intended to turn their whole industry grim and gritty with those books, but that is what happened. And keeping in mind that it was ’99, 2000 when I came up with the idea for New Frontier. I remember it being really important to me to kind of try to put out a story that reminded us of the heroic ideal — and remind everybody who was going further and further down the grim and gritty road — and that’s readers and creators alike — what it was we loved about this stuff in the first place and why it was special. And why even as 40-year old men, we’re still going in to the store every Wednesday to see what Spider-Man is doing. It’s because this stuff filled us with hope and optimism. And that’s what I was trying to put into the book: just to remind us all about why this stuff is so meaningful to us. And I think it did that for a lot of people. In terms of my career, in a lot of ways I was a made man after it all clicked and once people had responded to it. Even better is just meeting people with whom the book has meant something when I’m at a show or a convention. That’s really a wonderful byproduct of the whole thing. That’s something I did: touched somebody on that level. And, yeah, it’s made getting work easier.
dcnewfrontier2 flash stop punchNASO: One of the other great things about New Frontier is it’s kind of on the edge. It might not be in continuity, but yet it could be. You don’t see that a lot now. It seems like everything’s crammed into one continuity.

COOKE: It’s actually funny. If you strictly adhere to what DC refers to as their continuity, then what happens is, in ’85 or whatever, “The Crisis on Infinite Earths” compresses all the continuity down and destroys time. As far as I’m concerned New Frontier is pre-Crisis continuity. Before time got all screwed up. This is how events were playing out in real time. In my head, that’s the way it is. It’s funny, I was part way through New Frontier and I did other little gigs, a Doctor Fate short story that culminates Doctor Fate. So I have him fight a giant sea monster covered in tentacles. And while it's never referred to or connected, in my head that’s a piece of The Centre that got loose, that is roaming around the bottom of the ocean. So I found a way to tie almost everything together in my own head.

NASO: The Absolute Edition of New Frontier is out now. So how do you feel about your series being collected in the same way as recognized classics like Dark Knight and Watchmen?

COOKE: Well, I guess that it’s a hell of a thing. It’s hard not to feel great about that. And it’s probably high time. You know, I took a second to thank the retailers because I know that DC has got the ability to sort of poll and monitor them pretty closely as to product they think is going to work. And it was the number one requested, Absolute, once you got past the obvious choices. The retailers really wanted the book, and that’s I think what gave DC the confidence to put it into the schedule. I thought it would be maybe 10 years before it even got collected.

NASO: [Laughs.] You know how they collect books nowadays.

COOKE: Yeah but, at the time I was doing it, it had taken them three years to do The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen hardcover. And I was thinking, “God if it took them three years to do that I’m never going to get this collected.” [Laughter.] So yeah, it’s all been quite a surprise to me. The book retailed for, I think, $6.95 per issue for 64 pages. No ads. So you basically got three comic books for 50¢ less than it would cost to buy three comic books. And I think the first issue sold 30,000 and change in copies. So it was by no means, in terms of quantity, huge, but I think it was the No. 1 book that month for money coming in, for dollars earned. I think that they were happy with the book out of the gate, in terms of its performing. But yeah, I don’t think anybody expected to see the readers become as attached to it as they did.

NASO: Why was the decision made to put extra material into the Absolute collection and how does it make the story better in your opinion?

COOKE: The first thing to point out is there were probably close to a hundred pages of story that never made it into the book. And I don’t work in a formal fashion — I don’t sit and type a full script and then draw it. What I do is I plot it. And then I sit down and draw it and then I write the dialogue afterwards. And what happens when you work that way is, certain sequences end up being longer than you thought they’d be. Some would be shorter. And you’d end up with things you’d have to cut. And scenes that you couldn’t bear to cut. Generally, on a project like this I end up with more pages than I need for every issue. And then I sit down and I’m looking at what’s the weakest part, what can we afford to get rid of? What can we trim out of here and still keep it clear? And I think the process actually improves the work.

But sometimes things go out over the side. And two things that I didn’t get too deeply into were J'onn J'onzz’s back story, like about his powers, or The Flash. Because that stuff was so well known by the readers that I knew they didn’t need the information. But when we got to the point of doing an Absolute, it was like, in order for this to be a complete reading experience we need these pages. And that way there’s nothing outside of this book you need to know in order to appreciate it all. The other extra pages are the scene with the Suicide Squad at Dinosaur Island. I thought it was a really cool scene, and it did a lot to explain how people were going crazy and that there was something about the island that was more than meets the eye. It wasn’t a critical scene, and that issue was running long, so it got cut. Initially, I said I could probably do probably 48 pages for the Absolute, and they said, “Whoa, don’t go crazy.” [Laughter.] So yeah, I think we settled on 12.

NASO: That’s cool that they let you do that, you know? Especially after all the trouble you had getting it off the ground in the first place. That’s kind of a nice bookend to that.

COOKE: Yeah. I feel sorry for DC when they deal with me, in a way. Because I always want a little more. And I’m always trying to get the things to be a little better, or a product to stand out just a little more.

So they said, “You’re crazy, man.”

And I said, “We have to do at least 13 new pages to get it up to 400 pages. Let’s just hit the magic number 400. Let’s at least do that.”

And they said. “OK, yeah.”

NASO: You won an Eisner Award in 2005 for Best Limited series. How does it feel to get that kind of recognition for your story?

COOKE: I don’t pay a lot of attention to awards, to be quite honest. It doesn’t mean that they don’t have meaning to me, and I don’t appreciate it. It’s never really meant that much to me, but … I remember that feeling incredibly gratifying to me after all that time from being a 13-year-old kid, buying those markers to do those Spider-Man drawings, to that point where I was on that stage. It was a great thing, and it really helped me see that “OK, you didn’t completely screw up. You got something right here.”

NASO: And it has to be gratifying too, because you had this idea for the story from the very beginning, and it was threatened.

COOKE: I can say without a shadow of a doubt: So far, when it comes to the product, to the work I do, to the stories I tell, I’m right. [Laughter.] And I know I’m right. And I will listen to educated opinion, et cetera. But when it gets right down to it you have to know when you’re doing something right and when you’ve turned that corner of where you’re going to get a paycheck for something you’re doing. And yeah, sticking by something because you know it’s the right way to do it, and somehow managing to get it together feels great. It really consolidated in my head that, for my sake, for my own good, I know what I’m doing from here on in. And if anything, it does eliminate a certain amount of self-doubt about your convictions. And your judgment.

NEW, NEW FRONTIER

NASO: New Frontier is being created as an animated film for DC’s new line and you’re involved in that. So how did that project come about? How were you invited to the process?

COOKE: Again, this came completely out of the blue. I had no idea that such a thing would ever happen or could happen. And then Paul Levitz and Gregory Novek, Creative Services VP at DC had got together with Warner’s Home Video for three direct-to-video animated movies that didn’t just feature their characters but featured the actual storylines and creative thrust of an actual fan-favored project. And luckily New Frontier was one of the ones that got selected. And I found out over the phone. I got a phone call from Gregory Novek. He was calling to let me know about it, and he was also wanted to know if I was interested in writing it. They were suggesting I work with a co-writer. And, at the time, I’d just gotten started with The Spirit and I had a pretty full plate. So I begged off actually being involved in the writing, but I was involved in the revision stage. So as the screenplay was being developed I was part of the process.

NASO: Who actually wrote the screenplay?

COOKE: The way it shakes out, Stan Berkowitz, who’s a long-time associate from back on the Batman and Superman shows has written a whole pack of cartoons and has been associated with Bruce’s studio much longer than even I have, that’s for sure. Stan ended up writing the first four drafts, and then I did a polish/dialogue-rewrite at the end.

NASO: Normally, these animated features are about 70 minutes long — so was it hard to get every moment of the series in that time frame?

COOKE: I think that was one of the real instances in my life where even I had the sense to realize that even I couldn’t probably objectively do that. And I think it was a real bonus or benefit for Stan and Bruce to be able to come in, to look at it with a critical eye and kind of mercilessly cut it down to the time length and still keep it coherent. So they made a lot of choices in terms of what got cut and what didn’t. When I got involved, we put a few things back in and took a few other things out, but I think they did a great job of pulling the story down to the time, and still keeping the heart of the story and all the great character arcs — a hell of a lot more moments than I would have thought.

NASO: It sounds like they really respected your creative input and the fact that you wrote the book.

COOKE: Oh, no, not at all. I’m only half-joking there. No, it was a struggle all the way down the line.

NASO: Oh, really?

COOKE: Certainly not with DC or with Home Video, but with Warner Studio, during the script process. The first three drafts that went through, there was no Wonder Woman. And there was no Lois Lane. And it’s not even addressed anywhere in the screenplay as to why Wonder Woman isn’t there. It’s just like she doesn’t exist. Well, it was titled, “JLA: The New Frontier,” but they just wrote Wonder Woman out of it like she didn’t exist. And it was inexplicable to me.

And they were saying, “We don’t have time, we don’t have time for all these characters.”

And I said, “Well, we’ve got to make time for her. I mean I’m sorry.” And I said, “Lois is critical, too.”

And they said “No she’s not. She’s only in a couple scenes.”

And I said, “Yeah, she pulls certain things together. She’s glue and she’s a device. Now that we’re in on a movie and not just a book, she’s our reporter. Here we have a huge story that we can’t tell in the time we have. Why would you write out the one character that can do exposition with a microphone in front of her mouth, and cover 50 pages worth of stuff in 20 seconds worth of exposition?” So there was a lot of back and forth to get it to where it was. And it wasn’t particularly easy in that regard. I mean, there was a lot of respect for my opinion in terms of listening to it and stuff.

NASO: You sound like you’re happy with how it turned out.

COOKE: Oh, it turned out wonderfully.

NASO: But it was frustrating.

COOKE: Well, no. You know, I don’t think it was as frustrating for me as it was, say, for Bruce. It probably drove Bruce crazy. I mean it drove me crazy, too. To a degree, you get to a point and you go, “Look for seven years I’ve been doing this book now. And every two years I have to fight the same fight over again. No Wonder Woman?

NASO: Yeah, DC editorial wanted to change her to Black Canary?

COOKE: Well, they wanted it to be Black Canary to reflect continuity, but they had nothing against Wonder Woman. They had problems with my version of her. And again, it was like they were, “Oh my God!” But it was like, they were going, “Hey man, what’s with this really chunky Wonder Woman?” [Naso laughs.] Because at the time, it was like the Michael Turner sort of ideal is in play, right? Like basically a 14-year old with boobs bigger than her head. And, you know, well, “Wonder Woman. Greek Goddess. Amazon.” And I started putting all this together and with every one of these characters I was trying to think, “What’s going to be different with my take on them, that’s still consistent with who they should be?” So with her, it was, “I’m going to make her the biggest of the bunch. She’s a Goddess, she’s a warrior Goddess.” And that whole situation in Vietnam in that hut was staged, so it’s not until the end of the scene that we see her stand up. And she’s actually taller than him. I meet thousands of people who’ve read this book and that’s their favorite scene, hands-down. By a wide margin.

Cooke-taller
NASO: So Wonder Woman’s in the movie then. [Laughs.]

COOKE: Yes. [Laughs.]

NASO: You did the storyboards for it too, right?

COOKE: I certainly didn’t do all of it. Storyboarding is an incredibly time-consuming process. It involves a lot of drawing. I did about 10 percent of the storyboarding for the film. You’re looking at about a 1400-page storyboard, and I probably did about 140-150 pages.

NASO: That’s a good chunk.

COOKE: I did as much as I could. Keeping in mind this was all being done on the shortest schedule I’ve ever seen for a project like this. And it was during The Spirit so …

NASO: How long was the schedule?

COOKE: I believe it was three months.

NASO: Wow.

COOKE: I’ve never seen anything like it. That industry has changed quite a bit. Seven years ago when I left L.A., when they did a direct-to-video Batman movie — an animated movie — they would have a producer and three directors. And then each director would have storyboard people. And we did this in three months with one producer and one director. And no in-house storyboard people. It’s a lot tighter now.

NASO: Is this typical of animation across the board? Or just in this particular project?

COOKE: I blame Marvel.

NASO: How come?

COOKE: They just recently did those Ultimate animated DVDs — Iron Man and Doctor Strange. And they got the most cut-rate production work they could. Which is kind of typical of Marvel animation. You think back to the Saban stuff: They just get the quick, dirty stuff made, and people buy it anyway. So it sets a new standard, right? All of a sudden you’ve got to compete with that. And the problem is we’ve got to compete on price, on budget with that. But this is Warner Brothers, you know? And we have to bring it. It’s got to be better. Because that’s who we are. Marvel — I mean, honestly, I don’t think they even worry about whether it’s coherent, as long as you know, the footage count is there.

NASO: Have you watched them?

COOKE: No, I haven’t seen all of any of them and so maybe that disqualifies what I’ve been saying. Maybe they have magic in them. [Naso laughs.] But I feel a fair judge of production value and quality in terms of these things.

NASO: The first Ultimate Avengers was pretty crap. They improved the second one, I think. And I think Ultimate Iron Man is an improvement.

COOKE: Yeah, Iron Man looks a lot better, nd it all depends. Some of the trailer stuff that I saw for Doctor Strange looked really cool.

NASO: Doctor Strange looked awesome. I think that comes out in August. The ending of Ultimate Iron Man — you’ve got to watch it. It just kills the whole movie for me. [Laughter.] I don’t want to tell you in case you watch it, but it’s pretty bad.

COOKE: In case the people at the Journal didn’t realize it, Markisan’s a nerd. [Naso laughs.]

NASO: What can viewers expect from this animated version of New Frontier? Is it finished? Have you seen the final cut?

COOKE: I haven’t seen the final cut. As we speak, I’ve seen the animatics that shipped overseas. And that gives you a really strong impression of whether the story’s playing, and whether it’s clear and dynamic. And I was totally surprised, and there were actually a few moments in there that kind of choked me up. And I mean, this is an old story to me. But the way it’s been told made a lot of it really new. In terms of actual footage, I don’t think I’ll be seeing any actual footage until I’m in Los Angeles in about 10 days. I did see three screenshots of final animation — and, you know, you can’t judge a movie by some screenshots because you never know what they’ve picked. It could be the only three good shots in the whole film. But that being said these screenshots look great. It looks fantastic.

NASO: It must be really cool to see your story turned into an animated film. Especially since you worked in animation, you know?

COOKE: Well, that was part of the curse, though, too. Working in animation I knew the million things that could go wrong, and I was actually horrified about this happening until they named the director. And that’s when I was able to relax and just fit into working on it. Because the guy they brought in to direct it, David Bullock, is a good friend of mine from the Warner days. And he’s probably the only person in the world I would have picked ahead of myself to direct it. So I couldn’t have been happier.

NASO: We talked about Marvel — and I wanted to get your thoughts on how they’re approaching the DVDs, which is kind of coming up with new story ideas. DC, on the other hand, is adapting existing stories. What do you think of the difference there?

COOKE: Well I think either can work, but history’s yet to prove to me that Hollywood writers have anywhere near the imagination of good comic-book writers. So if you’re coming up with original stories, my question would be, “Why?” If there are a dozen great stories to choose from that are surefire, that have proven they have timeless appeal and that are ready to be retold. Why are you telling a new story? And does it measure up? Take your new story and hold it up against the great ones. Does it measure up? As for DC’s approach, it makes a lot of sense, because they know there’s a built-in market. They know they have a market of readers that have proven loyalty to the particular story in its different collections or forms, and they’re probably going to pick this DVD up. The other thing is they know they’re dealing with a good, solid, proven story so the first-time viewers— chances are they’re going to see something that’s going to work for them. The problem lies with six, eight DVDs down the road, when they’re doing Infinite Crisis and they’ve got The Red Tornado explaining why it is that B’Wana Beast is late for this meeting of the Justice Friends.

NASO: [Laughs.] Let it be known that Darwyn Cooke is a geek. B’wana Beast? You pulled B’wana Beast out? Yes!

COOKE: I can pull guys like that out all day long, man. I’ll tell you, everyone’s a comic geek at heart as much as they try to hide it. I don’t know if you checked into that blog I sent you the link for. There’s a letter in there to Bob Rozakis, The Answer Man at DC back in the ’80s from Chris Oliveros. And he’s Drawn & Quarterly’s publisher. Mister “indy” cool, superheroes-are-the-worst, and in his letter he’s asking, “Do I have to live in New York City to draw Batman?” [Laughter.]

INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX

NASO: How do you view the current comic-book industry? What do you think is being done right and what could be done better?

COOKE: I guess the first thing I’d have to do is ask you which part of what we’ll call “the comics industry” — because it’s so distinctly broken up now — if we’re talking about the mainstream companies like the two companies that fight for all the market share in the direct market?

NASO: Let’s talk about the main companies.

COOKE: Well, what are they doing right? They’re managing, I guess, to stimulate short-term sales. Lately. But I don’t see any long-term plan. I don’t see anything as sustaining the business. It’s an old song, but I think every year the market shrinks a little more. They find newer and newer ways to get more money out of the same people’s pockets. So we see sales spikes, but we don’t see any real growth.

NASO: Like the films that are coming out. Are there spikes with those?

COOKE: Well, no. That doesn’t translate at all. I think that’s been proven — that one does not necessarily translate into the other. There are some really neat, anomalous examples of the reverse happening like when Buffy got canceled. Joss [Whedon] is doing the next season as a comic. And that’s bringing a lot of Buffy fans into comic stores. Because they can’t get the show, they’ll go for the comic. Honest to goodness, I’ll bet you most of the kids out there right now under the age of 20 — and I mean most kids, not kids who go to the direct market — I’ll bet they don’t even know the Spider-Man comic book. They probably thought it was a cartoon show that got made into a movie.

NASO: So what needs to be done to sustain an audience long-term, and to grow an audience long-term, do you think?

COOKE: There’s sort of two keys there. One is availability or distribution. The other one’s having an efficient means to get the product in front of the mass market. And comics abandoned that in the ’70s when they went off the newsstand. So there would have to be an enormous investment made in making them accessible again. Probably the most logical answer to the problem is, of course, the Web. Abandoning print for the monthly product and using the Web as a delivery system. I think you’d see a permanent readership, and the books go through the ceiling. If they were available for an affordable price as downloadable files.

THEALEX.4.F

First off, the idea is the delivery method for the mass market, Whether newsstand or electronic. You have to have that in place to just get it in front of people to see whether they like it or not. Secondly, we’ve abandoned young people. And before anybody gives me any happy horseshit about, “Oh, we do the Adventure books for kids. Kids don’t go to comic-book stores, so why bother doing those books?” It’s like you’re just throwing money away to say you care about kids. If there’s one thing I learned a long time ago at ad agencies working on different clients’ stuff — beer in particular. This is key to any business. You’re not selling beer to people who drink beer. You’re selling beer to the kids who are about to start drinking beer. You’re selling to entry-level people, people who are about to make a choice as they enter that arena, so to speak. That’s how you grow a market. That’s how you sustain it. You’re not selling it to the people who are already there, you’re selling to the young people who are about to make the choice about where they’re going to go. In other words, the only great thing that superheroes ever did was keep kids reading comics. And now it’s the one thing that it doesn’t do.

NASO: So how do you attract kids, how do you get them to read comics?

COOKE: Honestly? That’s a top-down thing. And by top-down I mean that’s management above and beyond the publishers themselves, the corporate parents. Because let’s face it, the publishers are more than happy at this point to cater to the existing market. There’s no real effort being made to capture the youth market. If anything, every month we go further and further away from it to the point of no return. When a parent, and again I’m not advocating censorship, but the minute a kid can go into a store and buy a Green Arrow comic book that doesn’t have any kind of marks on it, any kind of labeling, it’s racked with all the comics — and there’s a three-page sequence where a man and a woman are naked under a sheet making bad puns about oral sex for three pages, there’s something fucked up about that and I’m not sure what it is. But there is something. And it speaks to why we need to take these characters to tell these types of stories. It’s a very complex issue because I think it involves a lot of personal feeling. A lot of the people involved in comics are people who love comics. I think it’s very hard for them to see outside of just what it is they’re doing, and the fact they’re doing it for themselves, really. You know?

NASO: Do you think maybe they could take a page from the old animated series, from The Justice League or Superman or Batman where it did seem like it was for all ages — yet it didn’t really talk down to kids and it was good enough for adults?

COOKE: That’s what we call “skillful writing” and that’s another thing. Without getting into specific examples, the fact that it’s a lot harder to write a good, clean story than it is to write a crappy story and load it full of salacious elements. And the industry, unfortunately, seems to take the latter approach. And you’re absolutely right. The Warner Brothers Adventure shows are a perfect example of how this material can be kept all-ages but still have meaningful content for anybody who’s watching it.

NASO: Let’s talk about comics becoming more and more late. It seems like every month they’re not on time. What do you think publishers should do to prevent that from happening?

COOKE: At this point, it’s really easy to prevent that from happening. But I don’t think we’re going to see it occur. Right now, the market has become so small and it’s become fragmented into two dramatic camps. There’re people — and I’m not sure if they’re really readers as much as they are collectors — who go to the store every week and buy every issue of every book on their pull list. And that market is being serviced heavily. However, the business market’s aged so that at least half of it now is guys who can’t keep up that way, and they buy the collections. It used to be a comic-book artist knew that he sat down for a month, drew the comic book, it came and went. If he didn’t do his best work that month he could always do a better job next month. These days a guy can’t do that, because the book’s going to be in print forever. It’s a comic that comes and goes like a magazine or a newspaper which is what it used to be. Now it’s something that, after six of them are done, they collect it into a book and it goes onto a shelf forever. So creatively, more time — especially on the other side generally — is being taken, because they want the work to stand. And they don’t want to have to look back on something like that in a collected form and not see their best work. So I think a lot of it’s happening because they’re serving two markets. And I think it’s inevitable that it goes to albums, and that the monthlies are going to disappear. I think it’s inevitable, and I think the companies can see that day. But for now, they’ve got to have a foot in both camps. So a lot of the reasons for lateness is that. All the stuff’s got to be better. We build it to last. And a lot of it is just unprofessionalism. Plain and simple.

NASO: They just keep trading more and more. It seems like they come out so much faster, almost like DVDs now.

COOKE: I think so. It’s like, if you’re not selling to kids why do you need to keep delivering? Why via a serialized approach? If you’re selling to adults — adults can afford to buy books. Shit, I go to buy an Elmore Leonard at Chapters or Borders. It costs me the same amount of money now to buy that thing as it does a Graphic Novel. $14.95, $11.95 for the book, what’s the difference at this point? You know? The market can afford to buy this stuff collected.

NASO: What’s the drawback if the market goes right to trades and there are no monthlies — I mean, are comic shops just going to disappear, then?

COOKE: Well, they might become bookstores. I don’t know. I think the best comic stores are very diverse in terms of what they offer. A lot of guys don’t have the inventory to manage that I guess. Or the money to have that kind of an inventory, but … I don’t know what’s going to happen to them. And frankly they should be thinking about what’s going to happen to them. They should probably be adjusting their business toward what they see going on.

NASO: What do you think about all the recent successes Marvel and DC have had with “event” comics and crossovers? It seems like they got away from epics for a while and now it’s back and they’re getting a lot of attention in the media. Do you think that’s good for comics?

COOKE: Well, again I’m not Rasputin over here. But those who don’t learn from history, they say are doomed to repeat it. And you know, we look at the sort of “event” crossover. What I call “the fuckfest” [Naso laughs.] sort of approach to comics. And when you look at, say, the early ’90s and we look at the collapse and contraction that occurred after that boom — I find it hard to believe that there’s any long-term strategy behind what’s being done now. Because, you know, a contraction is going to be inevitable. And I think we’re on the very cusp of it right now. I think you can spark interest in a captive audience like this to, say, plop down twice as much money as they used to for a year if you’ve got a really good hook. But you exhaust that ultimately. And we’re at a point now where I don’t think you can read a book like Countdown unless you’re reading 20, 25 other books in order to understand what is the big picture, which is only going to be the big picture until the next one starts. And so I don’t think they’re building anything that’ s got any long-term potential. I see these as sales spikes that are going to lead to a collapse in reader confidence and a strong contraction. And again we’re talking about the Direct Market. Because outside of the Direct Market I see all kinds of incredible things going on with comics?

NASO: Like what?

COOKE: You know off the top of my head, blah, blah, blah Manga, blah, blah, blah Manga. You look at the way this stuff is selling to young people and how many different interest groups it cuts across, and it’s obvious comics are here and thriving — it’s just they’re not comics with white guys with capes on. That’s really what’s clear the minute you get your head out of the Direct Market. You look at, again, something like — and this is all basic stuff — Time Magazine’s “book of the year” was Fun Home. It wasn’t even “graphic novel of the year” it was “book of the year.” It’s like, the public’s there, the public’s aware. It has an appetite. And I think there are all kinds of great things going on right now. But I just don’t see them happening in the Direct Market. I think it’s dooming itself in a lot of ways. We’re almost at a point now where you can’t just let your kid just go in and pick a Batman comic off the shelf.

NASO: Yeah, you have to read through it first.

COOKE: That’s right. That’s what’s doomed, right? Because parents are notoriously lazy. They’re not going to read all their kid’s comics any more than they’re going to watch all their TV They trust the companies to provide wholesome entertainment. They don’t expect comic books with superheroes to have that kind of content in them. And yeah, in a way I think they’re just dooming themselves because they’re cutting themselves off from the only growth market they have, which is young people. When we look at graphic novels or humor publications, or all the incredible things coming out of Asia, comics seem to be exploding in all kinds of ways. And even superhero stuff in movies and other media is doing terrifically well. I think that, to me, what I call the “defining moment” of this era, came in the ’90s. Do you remember when The Authority actually hit the top ten?

NASO: Yeah.

COOKE: So here we are, the first time since probably X-Men that there’s a new property? That’s come up out of nowhere and has everybody so excited it’s made it into the top ten. And it’s brand-new. Now — this is the critical moment, I think. Personally, I think they should have put everything they had behind that.

NASO: Oh, they fucked that up big.
COOKE: And what they did was the exact opposite. They saw that its modern take cast key brands in a certain way so they killed it. Now, I can sort of follow that line of logic, but what happened almost automatically is they took all the elements out of The Authority that they objected to and they folded them into their main line of books. So it’s like even when they do succeed and actually come up with something new that new readers want — that’s as popular as you can get — they destroy it and fold it into the things that they’re comfortable with. And I think it’s a defining moment at that. It’s like proof that the even the publishers are like, “we don’t even want real.”

NASO: Well, that’s very observant. I never really thought of it that way, but it makes sense to me. There was so much buzz on that book.
COOKE: And all the themes that they said were too extreme, that they killed the book over, are all part and parcel of pretty much any DC comic you pick up now.

NASO: Yeah, well, it had a huge influence; there’s no doubt about that.

COOKE: It also inadvertently set the whole thing in motion because as soon as DC clamped that thing down, those boys went over to Marvel. And Marvel was bankrupt at the time so they were happy to roll the on their main characters with that approach. Because they had nothing to lose. And they go, “The cat’s out of the bag.”

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