COUNTING DOWN IN THE DCU WITH DAN DIDIO

by Matt Brady

The DCU, it is a changin’.

March sees DC Countdown #1, which promises to follow up on the events from Identity Crisis, and maybe even, if the cover is any indication, add another to the body count. Then, in April, things get rolling in a big way, with the launch of two miniseries spinning out from Countdown, The OMAC Project and Day of Vengeance, with two more miniseries promised for May.

What does it mean, and where are these changes leading? We sat down with DC VP, Editorial (and editor of Countdown), Dan Didio for some answers, some larger-picture looks, and of course, the obligatory teases

Newsarama: First question, to set the stage – from your chair – what’s the big picture of DC Countdown, and what does it do for the universe?

Dan Didio: If you look at Identity Crisis as one of our starting points, that helped reset he tonality of the DC Universe, and gave it an attitude and a personality. What we’re doing with Countdown is setting the direction, and further defining the tone, and giving a backdrop against which all of the characters will exist and survive, and really give a feel that this is a world picture, and this is a comprehensive universe. This is a place where everybody exists together as one.

NRAMA: With Countdown coming out of Identity Crisis as it is, when did you realize that Identity Crisis was going to be, for lack of a better phrase, the story that keeps on giving? After all Brad [Meltzer] has said that he never went into the story looking to write a blueprint for the next era of the DCU…

DD: When we got Identity Crisis in from Brad, I knew what we wanted to do with the DCU and where we wanted to go. I knew what the tone I wanted to see come into the DCU was – I wanted to put a level of danger and of consequence to the DCU and the characters. We had been addressing that piece by piece, but realistically speaking, you can only change tonality on the individual books incrementally without turning off too many people, or confusing people along the way.

So, when we got to Identity Crisis, and I saw that the story basically hit the nail on the head in terms of the number of characters that we wanted to address as well as changed the whole feel and perception of how people saw the DCU characters – I felt that was a great starting point from which we could move out from.

NRAMA: Going back to what you said you wanted the DC Universe to have – a level of danger and consequence – prior to Identity Crisis, do you feel that was missing, or just not emphasized?

DD: I always hit on a little speech that I fall into when I’m talking to anyone about this. I’ve always looked at the DCU as very proactive universe. Our heroes get powers by accident or circumstance, they inherently know how to put on a costume. They inherently know how to do good. They go out on patrol, they’re proactive, and they’re greeted in the world as heroes. They walk into a bar, and the folks in there would pat ‘em on the back and buy them a drink.

What I was looking for was to give them a reason. The heroes are putting on a costume for a reason. They’re motivated to do so, because something inside them tells them that they don’t exist as they are if they don’t put that costume on. If they do that, they know that they are sacrificing other aspects of their life, and more importantly, they’re out to make the world a better place, and they know that not everyone will agree with their views and motives to achieve that goal. There are a lot of choices being made – a lot of difficult choices being made. I guess what I’m getting to in a rambling fashion is that I want to give purpose for them to put on a costume. I want to give them a reason, and show that they are doing it at a sacrifice to themselves.

If you compare DC with how other companies do heroes, they may be reactive, that is, the problems come to them. If our people are going out, seeking trouble, and trying to stop it, then ultimately, they are doing it at a cost to their own lives, and I want to show what that cost is. I want to give them a sense of vulnerability. Even though they may seem invulnerable, they can be hurt – as Identity Crisis showed.

NRAMA: Where did the desire for a shift in tonality within the DCU come from?

DD: A lot of this actually came following September 11th. After everything that occurred in New York City, I was coming to work at DC, and going through the Port Authority. At that time, you would walk into the Port Authority, and you would have National Guardsmen standing there with machine guns. He’s standing there holding his machine gun, and is supposed to be making me feel better and more protected, but somehow, that gave me a greater sense of dread – it put me more on edge.

NRAMA: It brings the danger to a visible point…

DD: Absolutely. Honestly, when I looked at that, I felt that was an attitude that we had to bring to our heroes. There should be two reactions when a superhero walks into a room. The first reaction is, “Oh shit, they’re here for something,” and the second reaction is, “Oh shit, I hope they’re not here for me.” No one should be taking a step forward to pat them on the back – they should be taking a step backward, thinking, “Something bad is about to happen here.”

NRAMA: This is kinda of along the lines of what Howard Chaykin said when I spoke with him about Legend he’s doing for WildStorm with Russ Heath – that, as a species, humans don’t normally treat the special or the different as something to be cherished. They’re usually pushed into isolation by society out of fear…

DD: Absolutely. So what happens is that when you look at it that way, from the “outsider” approach, they band together as a group because they share a common goal – to make the world a better place. When you peel that away, though, what’s everybody’s definition of “a better place?” what are they going out and trying to achieve? Now what we’ve done is brought in a level of conflict in how our heroes go out to do their business. That aspect makes up a lot of what we’re going to be exploring over the next year – what might be good for one might not be good for another...or for a third.

We’ve broken up the trinity – Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman are no longer standing shoulder to shoulder. And now they’re the focal points of everything that’s about to happen, because they should be.

NRAMA: Let’s go into those three, and how the other heroes seem to fall under one of them in terms of their respective approaches. How do you see them as being different?

DD: If you want to break it down into the simplest terms: Batman is the policeman; he goes out on patrol and tries to prevent crime. If a crime happens, he finds the person, apprehends them, and brings them in. Superman is the fireman – he goes out and is waiting for a problem. When something does happen, he’s the first responder. He’s there to help; he’s there to save people. He’s not there to affect change or pass judgment; he’s there to help whoever is in trouble.

NRAMA: And Wonder Woman? Don’t say postman…

DD: [Laughs] No, no - Wonder Woman is the activist of the DC Universe. She has a social purpose, a social cause, a direction, and an opinion. She is going out to affect change to make a better world through her social beliefs.

Each one of these three – if you look at them individually, they’re all working to make the world better, but they’re approaching it in different ways. It’s only natural that those approaches might bring them into conflict in how they help people, and work to make the world better.

NRAMA: Getting to the more practical side of this then, with DC Countdown #1 coming out, you’ve got Geoff Johns, Judd Winick and Greg Rucka as three writers on one book that’s the gateway for these changes. How much are they the architects of what’s coming, and why were they selected?

DD: I reached out to Greg, Judd, and Geoff over a year ago, and we started to lie some of the groundwork. Jeph Loeb was involved with it too, but he was basically the one who we were bouncing ideas off of, rather than being physically in the room with the rest.

The first thing that’s wonderful about these guys is that they’re friends, and they’re talking amongst each other normally, so there’s a natural camaraderie among the three. The second thing is that, when the three walk in a room, all egos are gone, and any attitude is checked at the door. They only want to do one thing – tell a great story.

Looking at the guys individually, they give me three interesting directions on how we can approach characters and storytelling. Judd has a level of irreverence, but he brings a social conscience to it. Greg has depth and a way to bring in the weight of the world, and get you really emotionally involved in the core characters themselves. Geoff has a sense of superheroes and adventure, and the epic nature of storytelling, too. Put the three together, and every one of them has all of those aspects, some of them are just a little stronger in the others. When they’re together as a whole, they have a real sense of how to tell the broadest, most accessible stories that we, as a company, can put out for the mass audience.

What’s even more interesting is that when you put the three of them together in a room, they’re driving about 25% of my lineup, based on sheer volume of work. As a group, they can affect story and drive over all story for the entire universe, just thanks to the books they’re working on. But I don’t have to work with just those three and their books – they work so well with others that other people are joining in and wanting to be a part of it. It’s something that’s easy to build when you have a strong foundation like these guys.

NRAMA: So basically, the three of them can never be on the same plane together?

DD: [laughs] No comment.

But we have so much fun. The best thing about being the editor of Countdown for me is finding a way to use each one of them to their strength and build a straight through storyline with chapters moving in and out. Each one comes in with their own style and tone, and I get to make sure all the pieces have a flow to them. That’s fun.

NRAMA: How do things get from the one issue in March to four miniseries coming up?

DD: Countdown serves two purposes – for one, it’s an entertaining, exciting story. All things considered, the first thing we said when we started was this was that we didn’t want to do, for lack of a better term, Marvel Age Annual, which back in the day just gave individual snapshots of series and stories that were coming up. Not that there was anything wrong with the Marvel Age Annuals – I got hooked on a lot of storylines I probably wouldn’t have checked out thanks to the small previews those issues had in them. That’s just not the approach we wanted to take with Countdown.

I wanted to make sure that Countdown was something that had a beginning, middle and end, and was a strong story in its own right. It also has to serve as a springboard for the four miniseries coming out.

NRAMA: Let’s talk about those miniseries…

DD: So we have the four miniseries coming out of Countdown. Running them down:

The OMAC Project, written by Greg Rucka with art by Jesus Saiz. Probably more so than anything else, this spins directly out of the story of Countdown. It also picks up on storylines that are left over from Identity Crisis, and starts to answer the question of does Batman know what the Justice League did to him, and more importantly, what’s he going to do about it?

The next one after OMAC is Day of Vengeance, which deals with things spinning out of Identity Crisis and Green Lantern: Rebirth. We have the Spectre spirit loose and attacking the magical aspects of the DC Universe. It’s written by Bill Willingham and drawn by Justiniano.

Number three, which follows in May, is Villains United, which also spins out of Identity Crisis. We set up the sense of camaraderie among the villains, now we’re moving it up to the next level. The villains are organizing. Who’s organizing them, and who doesn’t want to be a part of this group and why are two of the major questions being asked in that miniseries. That’s written by Gail Simone and penciled by Dale Eagelsham.

The final miniseries will be The Rann/Thanagar War. This is being established a bit in Adam Strange, and it will be coming out and crossing over with Green Lantern, and work to reestablish the cosmic scope of the DC Universe, and build on it. That one’s written by Dave Gibbons, and drawn by Ivan Reis.

NRAMA: Wait – are all four of these miniseries connected?

DD: Not really. The four miniseries are so strong on their own that I feel we could have done any one of them individually. The key of this was to four miniseries at the same time, and that way, creating a backdrop for all the DC Universe. You don’t need to read all of them, you don’t need to cross them all over, but what you’re getting now is a sense of scope in the DCU.

That said though, we’re addressing different issues in each of the stories. The Rann/Thangar War rebuilds the cosmic aspect of the DC Universe, as well as the science fiction aspect of the DC Universe. Day of Vengeance lays out what we believe to be the magical world of the DCU, something that was very strong for a long time, and something that we want to rebuild. There will be a lot of old characters appearing in that miniseries – some that haven’t been seen in 20 or 30 years.

The OMAC Project really addresses what it takes to be a superhero and the social aspects of the DCU and how the world reacts to the heroes. And then, in Villains United, I’m going to steal a phrase from Judd Winick – ‘It’s just a big honkin’ superhero versus supervillain story.’ It’s about action, adventure, and everything that goes into a superhero story. We want to bring that level of action and excitement back into the DC Universe across the entire line. This is why it was important to get a group of writers who like to work together, as well as a group of editors who were out there working with everybody, working to create something that would be a solid backdrop against which the DC Universe will be set.

NRAMA: You keep mentioning the entire line – but so far Countdown and the miniseries seem to be pretty isolated…

DD: Not so fast – there’s been a story that’s been unfolding in the DC Universe since the death of Donna Troy. We’ve been dropping secrets and hints and bits and pieces across the DCU since she died. Everything is starting to come together and make sense. Everything is starting to have a cohesive feel and starting to appear like it’s happening in the same place art the same time, and this is something that I think people can invest in and enjoy reading, and enjoy experiencing part of our world.

Believe it or not, things that started in that story – back with Donna Troy’s death will finally bear fruit down the line.

NRAMA: So you’ve been seeding things for nearly two years?

DD: Right. What we’re trying to do is work with an ideal in mind. We started with a small group of writers to lay the groundwork, and as we do it, we bring more writers into the story. The great things is that if you work far enough in advance, other writers get a chance to think about what’s going on, give input to the larger picture, get excited about the larger picture, and also take ownership of the stories that we’re creating as a whole.

That’s the main thing – everybody at DC is actively involved. Everybody is working to make something that we feel will ultimately result in a better DC Universe.

NRAMA: With the name…Countdown…usually that’s indicative that something is being counted towards…

DD: One would think so…

NRAMA: Yes one would…is there something that can be talked about now?

DD: The end of my contract maybe if it doesn’t all work [laughs]. Seriously, we are counting down to something, but I want to concentrate on the start of the countdown, rather than the end of it.

NRAMA: And the body on the cover of Countdown #1?



DD
: Again, that’s me if this thing doesn’t work. Although, if you talk to Jim Lee, he’ll tell you it’s one person, and if you talk to Alex Ross, he’ll tell you it’s someone else. Once I saw the cover, I had to hustle to make sure everyone who appeared there was in the book too.

NRAMA: The entire event seems to be a throwback in a way to the big summer crossovers – Armageddon 2001 and their ilk, but…what? More contemporary?

DD: I’d say so, yes. Every one of the miniseries can stand on its own legs and be its own story. We could have introduced them separately, but I wanted to introduce them together because I wanted to bring a sense of excitement and importance in the DC Universe.

Part of my job here, and has been since day one is that I always wanted to rebuild the sense of the periodical. I love the idea of getting the issue, reading it, and not being able to wait for the next one to come out the following month. The idea of waiting for the trade is boring to me. We create comic books that are bought on a monthly basis, and my job, and the job of everyone here is to make people go back into the store the next month or next week, and buy the next issue because they can’t wait for something to come six months or a year down the road. That’s what the fun of what we do is – we have a unique business in that our business is built on putting out books on a monthly basis, so therefore they have to be exciting on a monthly basis. They have to be compelling. They have to be filled with characters and situations that people want to see more of. We’ve got to create stories that are too big for movie budgets. We’ve got to tell stories that are too big that can just be collected and sit on a shelf. We’ve got to tell stories that people want to see and read every month, every week.

NRAMA: Well said, but still…isn’t there a fine line between being loved for providing people with great entertainment every month, and being hated for making too much good product that people therefore, can’t afford?

DD: I understand that there is a limitation to people’s budgets. Realistically for me, we try to create as much diverse products to attract the widest breadth of audience as possible. This is something that the people who enjoy the community, the continuity of the larger universe. But you know what? We can tell great stories outside of that, such as JLA: Classified, where readers can picks and choose where it fits in. On top of that, we can tell something like Seven Soldiers, which is so broad that it can’t be contained – it’s a force unto itself, and should be allowed to be the best it can be, without worrying where it fits into the world.

My bottom line is that, if a story is exciting, if a story is interesting. If the creators are the ones whose work you want to see, that’s the story you should be buying. Just because you have 500 issues of something in a row isn’t a good enough reason t buy something that you’re not enjoying anymore. I want to create books that people are excited about and want to read, and that’s the bottom line.

NRAMA: Going back to what you were saying about the breadth of Countdown and the associated miniseries is about a $40 financial commitment – that’s a good news/bad news thing for you, in that fans are excited about it, but then realize how much it will cost them?

DD: And I can sympathize. Before I took this job, and started getting all these lovely comics delivered to my office at no cost to me, I had to go out and buy comics on a regular basis, and I was on a budget. I had to make the same hard decision every week of what I could and couldn’t afford. I hate to say it, but our job is to make it a very tough decision for people in regards to which book they want to buy. That’s our goal, but I don’t want to force anybody to buy anything they don’t like. But we will continue to try and make the books possible, every day.

Fans speak to us very simply – they buy our books. If they buy our books, we know we’re doing the right thing. If we don’t buy our books, we know we’ve gone wrong somewhere, and we will continue to try and improve ourselves until we’re creating what people want to buy.

Honestly, you’re going to see people who will want to buy all four of these miniseries, people who buy one, and maybe buy none. Bottom line is, you can do it any way you want - you can buy all four and enjoy them all, or only one, and enjoy that as well. You should only buy DC comics for one reason – because you like them, and you enjoy them.

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