Gail Simone: “Oooh, this is a big one.
I don’t often get starstruck in comics, to be honest, but communicating with some particular folks just seems to have me shaking my head in amazement. It was that way with the great Steve Gerber, with my good friends Len Wein and Marv Wolfman, and with the incredible Jose Louis Garcia Lopez, among others. It’s not anything they’re doing intentionally, it’s just that I somehow get transported back to the time when, as a kid, getting a comic that one of these people worked on was enough to make the whole day feel like I was having a rainbow sundae.
Dan Mishkin is one of those guys. His work always seemed fresher, funnier, and more alive than the average comic writer. He made the first “funny” superhero comic I’d ever read that was ACTUALLY funny, in Blue Devil (I hadn’t been around for Jack Cole’s Plastic Man, and the like). And amazingly, he made a girls’ comic, with co-writer Gary Cohn, that somehow actually managed to FEEL like a girls’ comic, and not some fifty year old balding guy’s idea of what girls might like that might also make a lucrative toy tie-in.
That comic was Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld, with art by another of my favorites, the under-rated Ernie Colon. To say I loved this book is an understatement. It might be more simple to say I read each issue to tatters, which is true. When I became a pro at DC many years later, I tried at least twice to bring characters from that series to the DCU proper for cameos, but was told that they were saving the concepts for something. I hope that something has Dan as the writer, or I don’t know if whatever it is can truly be called Amethyst.
I missed Dan’s Wonder Woman at the time he wrote it, and it apparently has not been collected, but the few issues I’ve been able to read definitely show Dan’s gifts, because it shows one of the most human portrayals of Diana I’ve ever seen.
Dan took the time to answer these questions after taking a five day (!) bike ride, and man, this was just good fun. Thank you so much, Dan!”
1) Once again, the unexpected pleasure of this forum is having a great excuse to grill my heroes about questions I’ve always wanted to know about. I’m going to get to the Wonder stuff, but first, if I could just ask about one of my very favorite series of all time, the amazing AMETHYST, PRINCESS OF GEMWORLD. I have to say, I don’t think I had ever, ever read a DC or Marvel comic that so spoke to my own experience as a girl as that book had. When people say, “Oh, they should have a woman writer Title X because the lead character is female,” it’s AMETHYST that I always think of…here’s a guy who TOTALLY got what being a young girl who loves adventure is all about. Can you tell me a little bit about how this book came to be, and what happened to the concept in the end?
Amethyst happened because my old pal and writing partner Gary Cohn and I were lucky enough to come into the business at a time when editors were actually looking for something brand new. Nowadays I’m flabbergasted by the resistance to introducing new characters in their own new titles, and although my friends at DC have tried to explain to me why that’s the case, I still don’t get it. But the eighties, thankfully, were different. Dave Manak, who was editing a number of DC’s anthology titles, asked Gary and me to come up with an ongoing series for one of those books, and I’m pretty sure we agreed early on that it should be a fantasy of some sort; that might even have been part of Dave’s original request. Dave later solicited what became Blue Devil, by the way, and in both cases it was editorial, and not Gary and me, that pushed to put the characters in their own books.
Anyhow, Gary and I looked at the various ideas we’d tossed around over the last couple of years, and one that we called “The Changeling” seemed like a good bet. As the introductory caption on the first page of the first issue of Amethyst says, we were reaching into a deep, archetypal idea — you’re really a child with a secret past and a great destiny — and we needed to give it the details and particular identity that would make it fresh and appealing to a contemporary audience. I still remember standing in my kitchen getting ready to put something into the microwave when the word “amethyst” popped into my head, quickly followed by “Gemworld,” and I knew we had the goods. It may not have been until then that we knew that our changeling character was going to be a girl, but there was never any hesitation about whether we as guys could write her, or that Ernie Colon — whom Gary and I asked for as artist because we’d loved his work on the seventies Atlas character The Grim Ghost (and had no idea at the time that he’d been a longtime artist for Harvey Comics) — could draw her. It was only at the point that much of this had been put together that any actual females entered the picture: Jenette Kahn, who was DC’s publisher, was a big booster, and Karen Berger became the editor and, among other things, a gatekeeper who looked out to see that the girl sensibility rang true.
I really have no idea what possessed the powers at DC to take a chance on something like this, when their entire girl audience some months might have consisted entirely of you, Gail. I imagine Jenette had a significant hand. They weren’t so foolish as to think it would be a financial success, however, so they told us we’d have to tell our story as a twelve-issue maxi-series. That disappointed us, and kept us from exploring other facets of Amy’s and Amethyst’s worlds, but it ultimately focused us and helped make the series as memorable as it became. I just wish we’d stopped there, or else had an extended breather before deciding what we wanted to do with the character. But there was a toy company interested in an Amethyst line and DC felt the need to have a book called Amethyst in print while the discussions were ongoing. The trouble was that we’d shot our wad in the maxi. I was never happy with what I did in the ongoing, and by and large extremely annoyed with what anyone else did. Maybe the chance will come to do something more with the character, and even to reach the intended audience more effectively. There are some rumblings at DC about finally collecting the maxi-series as a trade paperback, so maybe that will get something going.
2) Let’s hope! Okay, you wrote an important run on Wonder Woman, one that many remember fondly, but because it came right before the George Perez reboot (please correct me if I’m wrong on my history), it seems to have gotten a bit of a rep as a lame duck except with those readers who noted that some of your ideas seemed to carry over into the new reboot. Can you tell me how you got the book, and how it was perceived by DC at the time?
I certainly never thought of my three years on Wonder Woman as being in “lame duck” status, though on the other hand, I’ve never heard my run described as “important” before either. I certainly don’t think DC saw it as just marking time, although of course they realized it was a series that was having a hard time finding an audience. The Roy Thomas/Gene Colan run that preceded mine had the big names that DC must have hoped would turn things around. But it didn’t have, I think, a comprehensive sense of the character to drive the stories and truly engage the readers. I was brought in by Marv Wolfman, who was the editor at the time (I guess I was a go-to up-and-comer back then) to write dialogue over a couple of issues of Roy’s plots and Gene’s pencils, and when Roy determined he wasn’t staying on, the book fell to me. I think DC wanted to find a way to make Wonder Woman a success — I know Jenette sure did — and just didn’t know how. I think they believed they had a cultural icon and feminist touchstone that they felt a real responsibility of stewardship for, but no way to line up comic book sales with that iconic status.
3) Yeah, understood…I don’t mean that it actually WAS a lame duck, just that it seems that the years right before the reboot have not perhaps gotten the historical respect they deserve, as with Busiek and Robbins’ mini-series in the interim before Perez, as well. So, what were you hoping to accomplish with Diana and her cast? Do you have something from your run that you are most proud of?
I wanted to do a Wonder Woman book that was ABOUT something, and that wasn’t just a kinda sorta female Superman. I tried to take the specifics of her classic setup seriously: she wasn’t invulnerable (had to use those bracelets!) and she couldn’t fly (just glide on wind currents), and there was all this mythological stuff to exploit, and themes of love and healing; and there was the invisible robot plane and Steve Trevor and Etta Candy, and the Diana Prince secret identity and the Air Force, and Wonder Woman’s interest in Man’s World as a place that was in some ways excitingly different from Paradise Island. And I wanted all those elements to start working together in a way that gave the series its own identity. (Funny story: I was sitting in an editor’s office when Bob Kanigher walked in and started falling into the “here’s how we did it back in my day” talk that I’ve now started to notice myself doing; and, not having any idea who I was, at one point he says that “this guy who’s writing Wonder Woman these days is just rehashing all my old stuff.” Now at the time I was amused, mostly because I didn’t think it was true — while I really enjoyed the Kanigher/Andru Wonder Woman I grew up on, and the Mike Sekowsky period too, I was trying to make it relevant for the 1980s rather than returning to a sixties style that was in many ways just too silly twenty years later. And yet, as I look back at what I just wrote about taking WW’s classical setup seriously, I guess I really was trying to replicate SOMETHING from those earlier comics.)
And I wanted to do something that would appeal to both girls and boys. I wanted Wonder Woman to be strong and to have relationships that felt real, and among other gambits, I thought that preteen girls might relate to an ongoing dynamic that could be described in the barest terms as “my mother doesn’t like my boyfriend.” I tried to handle Steve heroically, making him boy-relatable, without overshadowing WW, and I had in mind that he could be a sort of Willie Garvin to Wonder Woman’s Modesty Blaise. I’d like to think I was somewhat successful in much of this, and I’m proud of that. But I have to say that the story that always stands out in my mind is the one in which Etta Candy’s boyfriend becomes convinced that she’s Wonder Woman (issue 323): it seemed to me to be a charming conceit, and very much in line with the idea of loving acceptance of all people that thematically underpins the series, that love would lead him to draw that conclusion about someone who, let’s face it, does not seem on the evidence of body type to fit the bill.
4) As you might know, because I have whined about it pathetically, one of my DREAM projects is a Wonder Woman/Amethyst crossover story of some kind. Do you have any Wonder Woman projects you’d still love to write someday?
Well, collaborating on Wonder Woman/Amethyst would be a blast! And about a year ago, artist Rod Espinosa and I cooked up a pitch for a Wonder Woman series for DC’s kids’ line, which I wish we could have sold, and still wish we could do, but the kids’ books so far seem to be a very cautious experiment at DC, and they weren’t ready even to give a WW book serious consideration. But what Rod and I did was way cool, and it was fun to take elements of the Wonder Woman mythos and mix them up into something brand new that didn’t depend on any other continuity: we had Princess Diana as a 16-year-old — the only non-adult on Paradise Island — who wanted to see the rest of the world that the Amazons had pretty much shut themselves off from. So she’s sent to the Amazon Academy , a magnet high school in an American city that’s supposed to teach about the Amazon way — it had touches of Hogwarts and Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters along with mythological creatures in the basement and the typical clique behavior of an American high school. Would’ve been fun, and still might be.
My other coulda woulda shoulda (but never will) Wonder Woman project is the one I pitched toward the end of my run as a way of doing the character post-Crisis on Infinite Earths. Jenette hated it (for all the reasons I liked it, so this was essentially a philosophical split and not a commentary on my ability) and some fans might have as well, but to me it was the best solution to what I saw as the biggest problem with Wonder Woman: because she comes to Man’s World to teach us about a superior ideology (and whether you’d express it that way or not, I think it’s in the warp and woof of Marston’s original concept), it’s hard to find ways of making her grow as a character, not to mention keep her from being unbearably smug. Not to say that’s impossible — I think I mostly did it, and I think you do too, but gravity is always pulling the character toward her self-satisfied wonderfulness. So my solution was to have Princess Diana disappear during Crisis, and begin the new series with a high class art thief stealing from an exhibition of what the reader understands to be the artifact remains of Paradise Island; and then contrive to have Athena and Aphrodite put her in the Wonder Woman costume to protect those artifacts, and ultimately spread the message of the Amazon way…but first to LEARN that way (the whole character growth thing). As I said, Jenette hated it — among other things, I thought that reforming a criminal and turning her into a hero was thematically very true to Wonder Woman’s roots, but Jenette was horrified by it. For all I know, everyone reading this now hates it too and will start burning copies of Blue Devil in protest.
5) They should send them to me instead of burning them. I want those books! Speaking of future projects, I know the readers are interested in what you’re up to now. Aside from five day bike rides, can you tell us what projects you’re working on, or have out recently?
Training for the bike rides can be a full-time job, especially when I shoot for tough goals like going downhill as fast as Lance goes uphill. But…people may be interested to know that I wrote an illustrated novel for kids called The Forest King a couple of years ago (the artist was my friend Tom Mandrake), and that was a great experience, so I’ve been working on a young adult novel, with a girl protagonist, for the last few months and would like to have a first draft done by the end of the year (but I’m doubtful). I’m also pitching a lot of comics ideas and hopefully something will stick. Some of these are rugged male action-adventure things (with strong characters, I hope), but I lean more and more to doing work aimed at kids, and I’ve got a couple of those being shopped around right now. One reason it’s been harder for me to sell my work is that the audience I most frequently want to write for is preteens, and American comics aren’t really geared toward them anymore. But I was talking with an artist friend, Jerzy Drozd of Make Like a Tree Comics, and we decided that we’d have a lot more freedom to tell stories for the audience we wanted to reach if we didn’t worry about getting paid. So we’ve just started putting together a comic (again, one with lots of girl appeal) that we’ll debut online early next year, and hopefully be able to sell as a trade paperback down the road. Interestingly, this idea grew out of an odd request that DC once made for an Amethyst series set in 30th century Legion of Super-Heroes continuity. Maybe when we get it up and running, Gail, you can be a pal and announce it to your fans. The other big comics project in my life is the Kids Read Comics Convention (www.kidsreadcomics.org) that I put together with Jerzy and with a comic shop owner and a small-town teen librarian here in Michigan . This year’s show was a great success, and next year’s, in Dearborn , outside of Detroit , will be bigger and even better, we think. We’re absolutely committed to putting young comics readers and potential readers together with creators, and to banging the drum to promote comics for kids and teens. There’s a market for these comics out there, I’m certain, and it just needs to be awakened.
I totally agree and I hope you succeed wildly. Thank you again, Dan!