Karl Kesel Interview

Karl Kesel is probably best know for his work with penciler Tom Grummett on DC's Superboy. He is also one of the founders of Gorilla Comics. Kesel and Grummett's Gorilla book, Section Zero, is currently published by Image. This month, he and artists Terry & Rachel Dodson chronicle the ongoing adventures of DC's popular Harley Quinn. Worlds of Westfield Content Editor Roger Ash recently spoke with Kesel about Harley Quinn and Section Zero.

Westfield: What can you tell us about Harley Quinn?

Karl Kesel: It’s gonna be a lot of fun. This an interesting assignment because the main character is a) insane and b) a criminal, and both of these things are pretty essential to the character, so we don’t want to get rid of either of them. On the other hand, this book’s got to have some good reason to exist [laughs]. I can’t reveal too much, but between artist Terry Dodson, editor Matt Idelson and I, we hammered out a direction for the book which, within 6 to 8 months, will establish a motivation and agenda for Harley. Depending on the storyline, she will be on the side of the angels sometimes, and on the side of the demons and devils on others. Like most great crime characters, she’s not concerned with the law. What concerns her is something totally different. What that is will be revealed as the first half dozen issues progress.

I think we’ve got a great art team on the book, Terry Dodson and his wife, Rachel Dodson. They’re just amazing artists. Terry’s really taken steps forward on this book. I can’t tell you how much Terry is contributing. It’s really great to watch him grow as an artist. Terry’s got all these great ideas for score cards and all these weird little things he wants to draw all over the book. It’s really great.

: Has he contributed to plotting the stories?

Kesel: I always work really closely on that level with the artist. Usually I’ll figure out the beats of the story and then call the artist and talk it over. Terry is still getting used to this process. Usually, when I talk a plot over with Terry, Terry goes, “that sounds really good.” Then, a few days later, Terry will call back and say, “I was thinking about that story,” and he’ll have an idea or two. I really enjoy working with an artist like that. It’s worked really well with Tom Grummett and I.

: Was it difficult turning Harley, who’s basically a supporting character, into a lead character?

Kesel: That was one of the big problems. Not only is she a villain, and insane, she was a second banana and we had to figure out how to change a second banana to a first banana. Someone who could support her own book. In a way, this is the exact problem Harley has to face over the first few issues. She is with the Joker in the first issue. He goes to prison, she doesn’t. They kind of break up. She has to figure out who she is without the Joker. What she’s going through is kinda what we were going through too. [laughter] Over the first half dozen issues, she finds her unique niche.

: Will other characters from the DC Universe be appearing in the book?

Kesel: The first nine issues or so will be in the Gotham City area. Even though we move the Joker out of the book in the first issue, since this book is not called The Joker, he’s like a magnet in Harley’s life. She’ll move away from him, then she’s slowly and inevitably drawn back to him again. That’s how we plan to play with the Joker in this book. He’s kinda like the Haley’s Comet in her orbit. We’ve got Two-Face in issue 2. Harley tries working for another crime boss. The third issue is a slumber party. We get a lot of bad girls from across the DC Universe who drop in on this slumber party, not really sure what it is of course, and hilarity results. [laughter] Terry’s done a great cover of Catwoman, Harley and Poison Ivy in a pillow fight. In fact, the whole slumber party idea was Terry’s. In the fourth issue, Harley has finally decided to become her own crime boss, so she gets her own henchmen. She gets five henchmen call the Quintets, and this is basically going to be her supporting cast. I’m really intrigued by this because we’re going to see her recruit them, we’re going to spend time with them. This is, at least in my limited comic book knowledge, not something that’s been covered a lot; the life of these criminals. What do they do when they’re not pulling that heist? It should be a lot of fun. We’ve got a storyline coming up where Harley and the Quintets will rob a place just as another thief is robbing it, so of course they run into problems there.

At the same time, we introduce a character in the first issue named Jack Happy who kinda gets a bee in his bonnet over Harley and he hires some private eyes to go after her. Those guys are another side of the supporting cast in many ways. All of this stuff should come to a head around issue 9 or 12 or something in a big explosive, end of the first year story sort of thing.

After that, we do want to move her beyond Gotham and explore the rest of the DC Universe a little bit.

: It sounds like you’re having a lot of fun on the book.

Kesel: It’s a ton of fun. Getting Terry’s pages really inspires me to dialogue it. And working with Matt is great too. Matt has been really helpful in keeping a focus on the character and where we’re taking the character.

: Is it more difficult writing a villain as the lead character as opposed to writing a hero?

Kesel: In some ways, it’s really liberating because you don’t have to worry about the character being heroic. [laughter] This character does not have to rescue everybody, does she? What it comes down to is, I remember a long time ago, Frank Miller once said that he thought the Punisher was a hero but not a role model. I think with Harley, to some degree, we walk that same line.

: There are a number of events in the Batman books. How closely will Harley Quinn be tied to the Batman books?

Kesel: If there was another earthquake or a flood in Gotham, I’m sure we’d have to reflect something like that. But as long as I know about it far enough in advance, I’ll bend over backwards to play along.

: Have you had any contact with Harley’s creators, Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, about the book?

Kesel: I read Paul’s notes about bringing Harley into the DC Universe and I know he read my proposal for the series, but that’s about it. When I read Mad Love, I thought it was the best comic of the decade. It’s a bit daunting to live up to the standard they set.

: You started out in comics as an inker. How did you jump over to writing, and do you enjoy one over the other?

Kesel: It depends on the day of the week. There are days when I would like nothing better than to just simply ink. Inking is, quite honestly, really relaxing and therapeutic for me. Writing is really difficult. I’ve talked to the other great writer/inkers of our industry, like Al Gordon and Terry Austin, and both of them have said writin’ is real work, inkin’ is fun. [laughter] And it’s really true. Inking can leave me physically exhausted, just because of being hunched over the drawing board. Writing never leaves me physically exhausted, but it leaves me emotionally drained. So one rejuvenates me for the other.

But from the very beginning, even when I broke in as an inker, I’ve always wanted to have a finger in and somehow start writing. When I was inking Suicide Squad, I think once a day I’d send John Ostrander these 14-page long letters about ideas about what to do with Captain Boomerang. He was really, really patient and understanding. [laughter] Every so often, he’d actually use one of my ideas and that would thrill me to pieces. I did similar things on Superman. John Byrne actually called me Karl “The Kibitzer” Kesel. And once again, he used one or two small ideas and it was thrilling. Eventually, I got my shot at writing and I was real lucky.

Westfield: You’re also working on your creator-owned book, Section Zero, which is part of the Gorilla line from Image. What can you tell us about that book?

Kesel: Section Zero refers to a secret section of the United Nations charter which perpetually funds a team to investigate the unexplained and unknown. The way I describe it is Jack Kirby does the X-Files. There’s a lot of sneaking around at night with flashlights, but at some point, they flip on the lights in the room and they hit the monster! [laughter] That’s what this book is about.

: Who are the main characters in the book?

Kesel: The team is led by the smartest woman in the world. Her name is Doc Challenger. She belongs to a long lineage of adventurers. Her right hand man is Sam Wildman, who’s our loveable rogue character. Everything comes effortlessly to Doc Challenger and everything is a struggle for Sam. He can’t walk across the street without getting beat up by ninjas. That’s the sort of life he leads. Adding spice to the relationship is that they are ex-husband and wife. As the series progresses, we’ll learn more about the backstory there. There’s also a childlike alien being named Tesla who has vast, vast, vast powers but, thank God, he only has the mentality of a 6-year-old, otherwise he’d be running the world. We also have a 14-year-old Cambodian boy who has one of those cursed tattoos. You know all about those! If he rubs this bug tattoo on his arm, he becomes a bug boy character for exactly one day, so his name’s the 24 Hour Bug. He gets a big bug head and these big bug arms grow out of his back. Obviously, he’s not really thrilled with this power. It’s not a power that really wins the girls. That’s kinda where we start and we move off from there. There’s a few other members who’ll join the team as the 6-issue mini-series progresses. It’s one of those stories that starts out pretty small. There’s some sort of animal or creature killing sheep in the Australian Outback, and they go to investigate this. But as it often happens in comics, this is a small pebble that creates massive ripples. By the end of the mini-series, nothing is the same.

: Is this a co-creation of yours and artist Tom Grummett’s?

Kesel: Tom has brought an awful lot to it and we are certainly equal partners, there’s no doubt about it, in this process and in this book. I would have to say there’s a lot more of my idiosyncratic likes and dislikes in this book than Tom’s. This is the sort of book I’ve always wanted to do. Its got a little bit of the Fantastic Four, a little bit of the Challengers of the Unknown, a little bit of Ghostbusters, a little bit of Indiana Jones, a little bit of the Kirby Marvel monster comics that I have an insane, stupid love for. It’s like you throw them all in a big pot, then you throw in a bunch of books about UFOs and Bigfoot and you hit the blender button and this is what you come out with.

: And this is a mini-series?

Kesel: Yeah. It’s a 6-issue mini-series, until we see how much you guys like us [laughter]. If you guys like us, we’ll keep giving you guys more Section Zero stories. From the beginning, we thought of this more along the lines of a series of movies or specials. We have ideas for a 24 Hour Bug one-shot. We have another idea for another character who will be introduced in the mini-series and it would be his biography. That would probably be a 12-issue mini-series. That’s how we’d approach it; depending on what kind of story we want to tell, that would dictate the format we present it in.

: Do you have anything else coming up?

Kesel: Don’t you think that’s enough? [laughter] Believe me, between writing Harley and writing and inking Section Zero and doing a lot of the trafficking work, that fills my day. That’s enough.