Paul Dini Interview

Paul Dini has work on such animated shows as Batman: The Animated Series, Superman, and the new Duck Dodgers. He is also the writer of such comics as DC's Batman: Mad Love, Shazam!: Power of Hope, and Superman: Peace on Earth, and Oni Press' Jingle Belle and Mutant Texas. This month, he re-teams with artist Alex Ross for DC's JLA: Liberty & Justice and he heads north with Oni's Jingle Belle: Dash Away All. Worlds of Westfield Content Editor recently spoke with Dini about his upcoming projects

Westfield: What can you tell us about JLA: Liberty & Justice?

Paul Dini: I'm having a great time writing it and it's stunning to look at. I think this is Alex's best work to date. It is the classic Justice League story that all the fans have been asking him to do for a long time. It's a big story, it's at least 30 pages longer than the previous big books, and it involves most of the League members in a huge adventure. When I say most of the League members, I mean most anybody who's been a player in the Justice League from pretty much its Silver Age incarnation.

Westfield: What can you tell us about the story?

Dini: It's not an easy story to give you a high concept pitch on. The Justice League is called into service by the Pentagon to handle a situation very quickly. You can say, in a very general way, that it's an alien invasion story, except it's not the typical invasion of huge, powerful aliens from Apokolips bent on world domination. It's actually a much more science based threat. The invaders, such as they are, are actually a form of small celled organisms, a virus unlike anything known on earth. Although it's a fairly primitive life form, there's nothing that human beings have to fight it. It spreads very fast and the Justice League has to operate very fast in order to counteract the effects of the virus to keep it from spreading across the world and also to protect the people in a foreign country who have already been stricken with it. Because everything happens so quickly, massive confusion and misinformation spreads all over the world about what the effects of this super plague are and what the Justice League is doing to take care of the problem. A lot of people fly off the handle. Certain governments want to firebomb the stricken country so they send planes after it. Some of the League finds themselves in a position where they have to fight human soldiers and disarm them without killing anyone. Another arm of the team has to analyze the alien virus and come up with a cure for it and get it administered. The remainder of the team has to confront all the panic and hysteria that accompanies a situation like this. They find themselves in the uncomfortable position of having to use their powers against ordinary people; people who are not necessarily bad, but who are acting out of control and are a danger to themselves and a substantial danger to the world. The Justice League has to take action against them and do it as efficiently, as quickly, and as safely as possible. It's a situation that hits very quickly and gets blown out of proportion very quickly and the public perception is the Justice League is more of a threat in this situation than they are a help. It does put them at odds in a human based situation.

Westfield: With diseases such as SARS and Monkey Pox making the headlines, the alien virus takes on an eerie quality. Obviously you had to start working on this project before those hit, but did this story evolve from the fear that this might happen?

Dini: That's always a concern. Alex and I have found that, for whatever reason, we've come awfully close to the mark with a few of our stories as far as them being close to things that are happening currently in the news. When we did the Wonder Woman book, Spirit of Truth, we started plotting that at least a good year before 9/11 and we were just finishing up the book when the attacks came. The finale of the book is Wonder Woman in what appears to be a Middle Eastern country fighting a terrorist organization. The book was perfectly timed, and also unfortunately timed, in that aspect. We couldn't have predicted that one coming, yet the book had a very eerily topical feel to it. It's the same with this. At least 2 or 3 years ago Alex and I had talked about buttoning our treasury books series with a big Justice League adventure and we wanted to do an unexpected alien invasion story. Something where the enemy was almost subatomic rather than Darkseid or an invader of that sort. And yet, in the last year we've seen all these fears of outbreaks and diseases. So once again there is a similarity there, but we did not do it to directly tie it into what is happening now. We did not want it to be the book with the slogan "Torn from today's headlines" plastered all over it. That's just the way it worked out.

Westfield: Aside from the special last year, all your other books with Alex Ross have focused on single characters. Why did you decide to do a team book this time?

Dini: We felt that we were closing out the series so why not throw in everybody? We enjoy all the Justice League characters and it was fun to concentrate on the ones that hadn't been featured in their own book yet. When the Justice League originally came into existence as a special feature in Brave and the Bold comics, the team consisted of five members; Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Aquaman, Flash and Martian Manhunter. So they're the ones that share the spotlight in this one. Yes, Wonder Woman's had her own book, but just as the other books we've done are defining the sort of super hero they portray, the Justice League is defining in that it's the first of the modern day team books that really sparked a trend in gathering a group of heroes together. We wanted to reference that. The creation of the Justice League is just as seminal to the history of super heroes as Superman, Batman, Captain Marvel, or the others. Also, none of the other characters, as great as they were, had warranted a special book to themselves. Yet Flash, Green Arrow, Green Lantern, Aquaman, and the others are terrific characters so this was a chance to let each of them come to the fore and shine a little bit. It was also a chance to put in a number of other members of the Justice League and give them significant roles in the story. So you'll also find characters like the Atom, Hawkgirl, Hawkman, Zatanna, Green Arrow, and Black Canary featured prominently throughout the story.

Westfield: So this is your final project with Alex Ross?

Dini: Yeah. Final for the time being. But you never say never. Who knows what tomorrow may bring or when one of us will get an idea and contact the other and say, "Hey, we just have to do this." But it's been a nice six year run with him and I think a very good collaboration. We were talking the other night that we look back on the first couple of books we did, and we'll re-read them occasionally, and they still work for us. I was at the Chicago Con last weekend and about 5 or 6 people came up and said how much they liked the Superman book and how it touched them in a way, or the Captain Marvel story, which is my personal favorite.

Westfield: With all these spotlights on heroes, have you ever considered doing a spotlight on a villain such as Lex Luthor or the Joker?

Dini: Well, in a way we did when we did the Joker story for Batman: Black and White. That was sort of an origin story for the Joker or a spotlight into his past. And I think, at least with the Joker, that's about as far as you can take him. He's not a character that I've found lends himself to a lot of introspection. I think that Alan Moore did a terrific job in The Killing Joke and I don't really have any cause to go into that territory. Also, as the Joker himself pointed out, what actually is his origin could be a matter of debate. If he has an origin, he'd prefer it to be multiple choice. I think that there's something that's always unknown about the Joker and should always be unknown about him. Lex Luthor, I think other people have done terrific takes on him. We found whatever was in the heroes more compelling than what was in the villains.

We did want to do a villain profile at one point, we had actually pitched this to DC some years back and I can easily see starting up this project again if Alex wanted to do this as sort of a capper's capper on the series. We had pitched them an idea of doing a book called Portraits of Villainy which would have been cover shot portraits of each of the key DC villains with a statement written in the villain's own voice on an accompanying page. So you would have seen an image of the Joker on one side and then a very weird, twisted joke from him on the other side. You'd have seen an image of Bizarro and then a statement from Bizarro that defines him on the other side. We would have gone down the list: Cheetah, Solomon Grundy, Sinestro, Harley Quinn, every key player in the DC pantheon and some of the newer characters who have come up as players in their own right. We pitched this idea some years back, I think back when we were doing the Batman book, DC initially passed on it. Maybe at some point we could do it again. I thinks that's as close as we're going to come to telling a big villain story.

Westfield: Also coming in November is your new Jingle Belle graphic novel. For people who have never read Jingle Belle, who is the character and what is the series about?

Dini: The series is about the one child in the world that Santa Claus does not get along with and that's his own 16-year-old daughter. The idea is that no matter what a great guy the rest of the world imagines you to be, no matter all the benevolent acts you do for other people and, for that matter other children, you're never quite the hero in your own family to your own kids. Jingle Belle is Santa Claus' daughter. I say she's 16, but actually she's much older. She's several hundred years old because her mother's an immortal elf and Santa's immortal, so Jing ages at a very slow speed. She's been living on the North Pole for a long time and the fun of Christmas all year has long since worn off for her. She's a teenager and she wants to be doing teenage things. She wants to be out, she wants to meet other kids, she wouldn't mind spending significant time away from the North Pole, yet here she is dealing with the Christmas scene 365 days a year. That's made her a little testy about the whole thing and there's a little bit of strife between her and her folks as far as that goes, but in her heart, although she'd never openly admit it to Santa, she really thinks what he does is pretty cool and she loves him a lot. It's just that being a teenager, she can't express it all that well. She doesn't want to.

In the current story, she finds herself saddled with a job of Santa's that she doesn't want to do. All her life she's grown up under the idea that some day she might have to take on the mantle of Santa Claus, and now she has to do it. The new story is called Dash Away All and it deals with what happens when, a few days before Christmas, Santa and his reindeer team are stricken by an evil spell by the Blizzard Wizard and his niece, an evil snow spirit named Heidi Hoarfrost. They combine their powers and give Santa and the reindeer a whopping case of pneumonia. He's out for the count and is not making the Christmas run. The only one who can conceivably do it is Jingle Belle, and she doesn't want to do it, but she has to. Even worse, she can't rely on the reindeer and she has to put together a replacement team of animals to fly the sleigh, and fast. She puts herself in the position of a coach having to hold tryouts and she comes up with a dirty almost dozen team of arctic animals to take the place of the reindeer. She uses her own pet musk ox and fox to help her out but there are also a couple of lemmings, there's an egotistical narwhal, there's a polar bear cub and a couple of others who are kind of like the rejects of the frozen north, but they all are determined to help her do this. She's got to undertake the big Christmas flight. What's even worse is that one of the animals on the team is a traitor working for the Blizzard Wizard and has plans to destroy the flight and get rid of Jingle for good. There's everything; action, intrigue, funny animals, comedy, cheap laughs. What we usually do every year around this time.

Westfield: Why did you decide to do this story as a complete graphic novel instead of a mini-series as you've done in the past?

Dini: It just seemed to be a big story and I wanted to tell a big story. Also, Oni has really been into the idea recently of doing graphic novel type event stories. This gives me a chance to play with a lot of different things; a lot of different comedy bits and personality beats. It's a good chance to experiment with the story and stretching the characters a little bit.

Westfield: You've worked with many different artists on Jingle Belle. What do you find appealing about this?

Dini: Everybody has a new take on it and everybody who likes working on the book likes drawing cute girls. It's always fun to see what they come up with. Also, quite honestly, there's never been one set artist on Jing and part of that is because everybody I've worked with has different schedules. Sometimes I'll call up Stephen DeStefano and he may not have time to do one, but he'll do a pin-up or he'll do some inking on a story, or a short story. Same with Jason Bone. It's just a matter of scheduling. Usually the artists I go after are guys who have busy schedules but they're happy to take a turn on the character. I saw some of Jose Garibaldi's character sketches for another project some years back and I was just knocked over by his artistic talent. When it came up that he was available for this project after doing Maria's Wedding, I said to Jamie Rich at Oni, "If there's any way we can get him; let's get him." He was very interested in doing it so he's on board and he's drawing on the book right now. I've seen his first pages and they're just really, really beautiful. He brings a whole different level of fun and charm to the Jingle Belle world.

Westfield: You also work in animation. How is the creative process different or similar to working on comics?

Dini: There's always been a lot of collaboration in every phase of my work. I've never really sat down and written and drawn anything myself and had it either published or animated. I work with so many terrific artists in comics and animators in the cartoon shows I do, there's really no point to me to attempt to do a job that other people are much better suited for. I like the flow of ideas that we get going back and forth and I like artists who can take the ball on a story or a certain idea and run with it and bring something to it that I may not have considered. I've always worked with a lot of collaboration and that's kind of the way I like doing it.

Westfield: Do you have any other upcoming projects you'd like to mention?

Dini: It looks like the Harley and Ivy mini-series that Bruce Timm and I have been working on as a sideline hobby over the last couple of years will finally be out in November or December. They may shove it back to early next year. I've seen Bruce's finished work on that and it's stunning. That's a lot of fun, just going back into the Batman universe and telling a fun story there. Although Bruce has rendered it just as beautifully as he rendered Mad Love, this one is really just an out and out comedy all the way through. It's fun to work with Harley again. She's always got something wild to do.

Witchblade Animated comes out today, the project I did with Darwyn Cooke for Top Cow. I'm talking with The Cow about doing some more projects next year. I probably will jump back on Mutant Texas before too long. I've been talking to Oni about doing a big Mutant Texas story for next year, graphic novel style and playing up the Western epic feel. I love those characters and it's fun revisiting them whenever I have the chance.

I will be doing another Zatanna project for Vertigo. Kind of a big one too.

Westfield: Anything you want to say about the Duck Dodgers TV show?

Dini: Daffy told me to tell you to watch it, he needs the money. He always needs money, or he always thinks he does. Actually that's a lot of fun. I had a tremendous time working with Spike Brandt, Tony Cervone, and Tom Minton on that show. This ties back into what I was talking about collaboration. We worked with a lot of terrific designers and animators and CG artists on the show, but for the first year or so, it was just the four of us in a room coming up with whatever weird idea we thought was funny. First Tom and I would write up the stories as outlines then Spike and Tony would take their pass drawing and scripting on the storyboard. Then we'd read the board and break out post it notes and just keep redrawing, rewriting and hammering at a story until we thought it was funny. Then we recorded it with our incredible cast (Joe Alaskey, Bob Bergan, Richard McGonagle, Michael Dorn and Tia Carrera) and sent it to animation. It was an amazingly collaborative and very freeing way to work rather than sitting down, as I usually do, and typing out a script. That kind of work is great on Batman or Justice League, but doing the Dodgers show this way was the traditional way of doing short cartoons and lots of fun. As Tony Cervone says, it's probably the only show that was ever done entirely on post it notes.