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By Tim Leong
When The Flash television show was canceled in 1991, creators Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo weren’t done with the title character. Fifteen years later they got their chance, as they were hired to pen the re-launched The Flash: Fastest Man Alive for DC Comics. With the book fresh on the stands, Bilson and DeMeo spoke with Comic Foundry.
CF: What is it about him that draws you back?
Danny: To tell the story of how it happened was that we were actually doing an original book that hasn’t been announced yet for Wildstorm, and last December they called us and said, “How would you guys like to write The Flash?” And the thing that really made it interesting was that they said it was going to be a new # 1 and a re-launch with a new character. Because of our history with the character and the time we spent thinking about him and having fun with it — for me, when they sent us the book of the stuff Geoff Johns had done in the bound issues, and I opened it up and saw that red logo I had an emotional reaction for sure — it’s part of my life. We wanted that show to go on. We had plans for what we wanted to do with it for a second season. I was going to say unfinished symphony, but it’s so pretentious. It really felt like…
Paul: An unfinished pop song.
Danny: Yeah, an unfinished story for us. And that’s not to say that what we’re doing has anything to do with what we would’ve done with Barry Allen on the second season of that show. It absolutely doesn’t.
Danny: But to go back to it 15 years later, it felt like a gift. Why we were chosen in the first place — to us, we weren’t going to do Superman or Batman on TV. And after that we had the Flash. We had written another piece involving the Flash and some other characters in sort of a Watchmen-esque superhero thing that didn’t go in 1989. We grew more attached to him then and then they said, “Do the Flash show.” Living with that for a year and a half it got in our blood. Now, I can’t say that I continued to read the book all those years. But going back and looking at the recent stuff that Geoff Johns has done — I remember coming in the next day after reading some of those and saying, “Wow, these are really good.” It really had a lot of emotion, it was interesting, I thought the work he did was really cool. I thought, “Okay this has been in good hands. Now we can re-launch again. The last thing I’ll say is that Dan DiDio said,” Let’s have this be more about the Flash than the villains.” Even though we loved what Geoff did, we didn’t want to do the same tempo exactly, at least not to start. Our mission for ourselves is to make the Flash a central character in the thing, as opposed to being a host to all this insanity with the rogues. We’ll get back to the rogues, but I can say that in the first arc it’s really about the Flash.
Paul: There w as a lot of catching up we had to do with the character and what’s going on in the series and in the DC Universe in general, because we weren’t as connected to it, as we were when we were doing the show. And also in doing the series, it was our version of the Barry Allen Flash. And for people that read the comics, they know we took some of the aspects of the Wally West character and folded them into the Barry character. So, when we came back to the comics we found that it was important that our take on the character really dovetailed what had been going on in the comics. It was much more important to have the details and mythology right. That took some getting used to make sure — as much as you could — make it consistent with what had come before. It allowed us to feel, though, that we were creating our own progressive movement forward for the character and the mythology, which is a lot of fun.
There’s a certain responsibility and certain legacy you need to uphold. And I think when people get a look in particular to the first few books, they’ll see that it’s very solidly plugged in to that legacy in a very visual way.
CF:To go back to the show for a second, what’s the most important thing you took away from the show?
Paul: Two of the most important things I remember taking away from the show were: 1) How hard it was. And 2) How much you had to dedicate yourself in the work in order to achieve something that had a consistent look and consistent quality to it.
Danny: I think that’s true of any TV show.
Paul: It was more difficult than we thought going in. But what I took away from it was the importance of characters and character relationships, which actually became more important when we did our other show, The Sentinel. I think in doing a show like The Flash — when you enter a show that has a fantastic science fiction element, it’s really important to keep the believability of what you’re doing in the context of what’s happening and I don’t think that anybody in that show doesn’t act like a human being. Even given the extraordinary circumstances in the world that it’s taking place in.
Danny: My takeaway is also my most memorable. A character that really felt like good comic book characters — meaning that they were wild, yet believable. And I can list them, absolutely. What I remember about the show is Captain Cold, Mirror Master, absolutely the Trickster, Nightshade and his nemesis in the first episode, The Ghost. Those characters, and we had Howard Chaykin and John Francis Moore, who’d both written a lot of comics. Taking those guys from the comic books and making them live-action, and still have the core values of a comic book character, meaning really imaginative, but took themselves seriously and were believable in their own reality. What we always used to say about the show was, “We’re making the show to feel as real to us in our 30s as we felt when we were 10 reading the books. We never played d own to it. We never did the Batman TV show. We never made them silly. They can be insane, but they had to be dangerous. And if we ever made them silly, it was probably an episode we didn’t like.
Paul: We always had humor in the show but we never had camp. We hate camp and we don’t like to see the material condescended to because we love the material. I can’t say this with complete authority, but it always felt to me, at least when I watched other comic book shows, that there were very few that had a real love and understanding of the genre and never thought, “Well, the only way we can have a Batman TV show is to treat it as a goof.” In a funny way, the original Superman TV show from the ‘50s actually played it really straight. If you go back and look at that show, I don’ t that material was condescended to.
Danny: Actually the one thing about the old Superman show — because we were kids when it was first on — that show is all about counterfeiters and bank robbers. And we were like, “Those aren’t good adversaries for the Flash.” This goes back to what I was saying about the rogues, but the reason why we didn’t have more was because of management resistance to doing costumed villains. We had to do them and prove that they were cool before they would allow it. So if we went to year two, we were going to do more costumed villains.
CF: You just mentioned management restrictions — and I’m sure budget played in there as well. When you’re dealing with the comics, your only limitation is your own imagination. You don’t have to CGI an explosion or anything. Has that freedom been daunting at all?
Danny: Well, the budget was restricted, so freedom was totally restricted by budget. Now talking about drawing and writing comic books, those restrictions are gone and you can get a lot crazier. But I think our tastes and sensibilities, especially with the first six, is a little bit more toward the show. We brought it down a bit in terms of how wild it is. I love, and I told Geoff Johns this, I love when the army of gorillas is parachuting into the prison to free the rogues — I thought it was fantastic. But, to start at No. 1 and to make it about the Flash and make it a human story about this guy, I don’t think we bombarded them with too much insanity. That said, there is some wild stuff that happens in here and where we aren’t restricted is in terms of action. So, our set piece action scenes are as big and as insane as you can imagine, or as we can imagine. But we’re not going completely wacko on the bad guys in the world around him, yet. And I have to say “yet” because people are asking me about the rogues, they’re the best part of the Flash universe, but all I can say is: they’re coming.
Paul: I think also that if the comic is The Flash, you want the best thing about it to be the Flash. The rogues are great and we all love the rogues, but it’s not called The Rogues comic book series. You want to have your hero be the centerpiece of what’s going on. The villains are great and unique and certainly memorable, but we want to use them judiciously. I think when we do bring them back into the series, we are going to do our twist on them.
Danny: Yeah, we are going to be a bit of reinvention. One of the rogues might get capped by somebody who really wants his identity. It’s just going to take some time — it’s like writing a movie as an origin story.
Most people get that Bart is the new Flash, and this is the first time we’ve talked about this at all. We haven’t done any interviews where we’ve talked about this at all. Bart has this physical relationship to the speed force that sets him off from any other Flash before him. It’s actually not a good relationship with the speed force, so to speak. And I think it’s in book four where it gets delineated pretty clearly. But in book # 1 you find out he’s still tapped into the speed force, even though everyone thought for the whole One Year Later thing that the speed force is just gone, from the Infinite Crisis.
So, his relationship to the speed force, his attitude about being the Flash, it’s basically like a guy with a disease, and he doesn’t want anything to do with it and is pretty scared. It’s not just, “Oh, jee, I don’t know if I want to be a hero or not.” It’s very physical. He has physical issues with it and it’s not something someone can just put him in a machine and fix. It’s actually really traumatic and really messes him up. He doesn’t even put the suit on until the end of book two, and that’s out of a specific necessity that you’ll find out in the course of it. So everything about how he becomes Flash is different than how Wally became Flash, or Barry or things like that. And by the end of the first six, he’s still not, “Oh, jee, I’m the Flash.” This relates back to what Paul said. The book’s called The Flash. It’s not the rogues gallery book. We’re doing some stuff that’s kinds dramatic and in the first series, there’s another guy that becomes the hero of Keystone city, and it’s not Bart. And that becomes a story of power and aggression. In us saying generically that we’re not repeating another origin story, I’m telling you specifically that we’re not. This book is darker and edgier than any Flash I remember from before because there’s some traumatic stuff going on for Bart.
CF: What do you guys find harder, writing for TV, video games or comics?
Danny: I’d say movies.
Paul: Movies are pretty tough. They’re all different formats and we can write a Flash comics script in a few days. God knows how many weeks it might take us to write a movie. Television and comic books have a similar quality in that they’re very finite in format. They’re going to be a specific amount of pages, they have to have a certain amount of breaks.
Danny: I say movies because there’s more meddling and there’s more people who think there’s a rulebook on how to write a movie than there are for how to write a TV show or comic book. Games I’m not touching right now but they’re kind of epic, because they’re an absolute collaboration between the fiction writers and the game designers. I believe in the future that the best designers will be writers too. At least with the way the culture is now, to do really good game fiction, the ball has to be passed back and forth between you and the design team. And sometimes Paul and I have been part of the design team. Game fiction can be really wild because there’s a lot of story but it’s told a little differently. I actually taught a course this last semester at USC on writing for games, and it’s really different than all this other stuff because you can communicate stories, ideally, though objectives and rewards. It’s not just linear storytelling.
Movies, I think, are the hardest and most painful because there re too many people who influence it and there are too many people who think there’s a rulebook that says you have to do this, this and this and then this formula makes a movie. People don’t seem to do that with TV, comics and games. I don’t think it’s a good thing and I think it’s why movies are a little too formulaic.
Paul: The other thing with a television show in particular is once the writer/creator starts the engine and creates the pilot and the template and it’s approved, then it’s pretty much up to the writing staff and the executive producers, especially if they’re also writers like we are, to then establish the format of the show. So it’s harder for someone to come in from outside and say, “No, your characters don’t do that,” because we’d just say, “Well, yeah they do.” So, you’re creating permutations every week and continuing stories every week. Or, the same thing really goes for a comic book. Coming into the Flash is like dropping in to a story that’s been going on for 50 or 60 years. If we create a new television show we’re creating the core mythology and it’ up to us to keep it going. I also feel, and I don’t what Danny thinks, but I also feel that the writer is a bit more trusted, creatively, in the world of television.
Danny: Well, that’s true. Film is a director’s medium and TV is a writer’s medium. Anybody will tell you that.
Danny: But to answer your question, movies are hardest.
CF: What was it like banging out the first script of the Flash comic?
Danny: Really, first we banged out the six-book outline. So that was kinda like our movie story. And I’ll tell you what it was like — on the first one we wrote a lot less dialogue than our editor wanted. So, she just hounded us for more dialogue, more dialogue, more explaining, more exposition, and I think that’s going to be a constant wrestling match for us. I’m not sure that visuals can’t tell the story really well too. But, she’s also been really great in terms of teaching the format of comic writing. Sometimes it depends on the day on how I feel about it. I’m going over book two, proofing it right now. I think I’d prefer less overt explaining through dialogue. But honestly, the big thing was that our first book had less dialogue than they wanted so we did more dialogue. In our original book, which we’ve turned in two of, I think absolutely we do more dialogue than we would’ve before we got coached by our editor. Like I said, she’s really taught us on how to write comics, in a certain way. She’s had an influence on us, even though it’s not her book – for the Wildstorm book. Now in fairness, and Paul will say this too, I’m sure, the Flash comes with all this information and history and pseudo-science and all these things that’ve gone before, they do need a lot of explaining and re-explaining. That sorta makes it a little more yakky than our new book is where we’re starting fresh and we’re not having to explain what happened to Barry and to Wally and to Krypto — I’m kidding. I’ll be anxious to see how people react to the book. I feel like they’ll care more about the story, than our little issues of how much explaining there is on a page. More about what’s going on with the legacy.
Paul: By the end of the first two book in particular there was a mandate, let’s call it, from DC to try and cram a lot of information in there like Danny mentioned. The legacy…
Danny: Wait a minute, Paul. I want to correct you. The idea to the history of all the Flashes came from us, not from DC. That absolutely came from us.
Paul: Like I said, it came from us.
Danny: No, it did. In the first meeting, I said, “I think if it’s a #1, what about who never read The Flash comic before, maybe those three people who’re coming to it because they like the TV show and now they want to read and they never read the comic.
Danny: …Or anyone who goes in to a #1. I know as a buyer myself, #1 means a lot. It means I can start at the beginning. It was absolutely our idea to sorta cover the entire history of the Flash in, I think, a pretty cool way. And some of the most awesome art in the first book that is the Flash history stuff. So if you pick up #1 and you’ve never read The Flash before, you will actually get caught up in this 60 years of history. And that includes the Kid Flash and everything. And I have to really give props to Ken Lashley because the work he did on the Flash history stuff in the first two books is really spectacular. It’s amazing stuff.
Paul: That, of course, and we’re working in a format of 22-page stories. To put all that in, plus tell the story that we’re doing without all he legacy, that makes the first couple m ore challenging. Because once we get past that, then by issue three we’re really into the story of Bart and his issue of being the Flash and about where the rest of the story is going to go. And although Jay is still in the story, we’ve kinda put the rest of the Flash legacy into the background and we can concentrate on the new stories. And like Danny mentioned the first six tell a story arc. Then when we hit issue seven we’re going to throw another change-up that people aren’t going to be expecting.
Danny: There’s a big surprise at the end of six and beginning of seven, and there’s carryover stuff that flows through. I’ve heard the complaint that every six it just starts over and they’re just trying to sell trade paperbacks, but ours has stuff at the end of six that goes right into seven. There’s one story in particular that’s a minimum of a 12-issue arc going on in this thing.
Paul: Also, we’re working really hard to, and we’ve done it, frankly, when that change comes at the end of six and into seven, it’s going to be motivated, and it’s going to be something we consciously decided to do and something we discussed with DC, and they said, “Great.” We wanted to do something that would also open new avenues of storytelling…
Danny: …That haven’t been available to the Flash before. Which kinda hard to believe because he’s done everything from time travel to all that other stuff. So we’ve got some other ideas that will be believable within its own reality. And now we’re talking about book seven and 12.
CF: How does the writing process work between you two?
Danny: Well on this, what we do is we take our outline for the book, because we’ve already outlined all six to start. And we’ll go through it and do a page count allotment to each sequence, just imagining based on the content how many pages it is. We work in the same office next to each other, and we’ll go, “OK, what do you want to do?” And he’ll say, “I want to do that scene and that scene,” and I’ll say, “OK, then I want to do that one, and you write from here to here and I’ll pick up from there.” So we split it up and glue it together and then go over it together and then we ship it out. Then we get notes and then we re-write it together.
Paul: But you know we also go through it and go, “OK, well this really needs a full page and this panel needs to be really big or this needs to be a double page.”
Danny: I know we haven’t leaned on the trick of having a lot of pages with no dialogue. Ken Lashley, the artist, will tell you, it feels like he’s doing two books worth or art with each book. Our stories are pretty dense and I think it’s because of our film-writing stuff. We haven’t learned how to put less story in to make it easier on the artist. I don’t think we’ve quite got that down. For the fans, they’re going to get a really dense book with a lot of panels.
CF: How has being writing partners for so long help you do your job better?
Paul: Well, you certainly deliver a shorthand and an intuition between the two of us. What we’ve actually been doing recently – within the last year, and whether it was with this book or with scripts that we’ve been working on is we used to work on everything together simultaneously. What we found for keeping our head above water and keeping things moving along really quick was dividing up stuff. That worked really well for us and allowed us to work a lot faster than we used to. A lot of that really does have to do with working together for so long. Because we know we can anticipate each other’s pace. And once we put it together and iron it out and polish it, it really is one smooth thing that is the best of both our work.
Danny: I think it’s getting better all the time. We’ve been doing it yeah, a year, a year and a half. Remember we’re sitting five feet apart. I’ll say, “What are you going to do with that?” or, “What are you going to do with this?” And sometimes I won’t say because I don’t wont to argue about to argue about and just put it down on the paper because sometimes it’s easier to sell it if it’s on paper than if I try to sell it to him verbally. So there’s a constant communication going on or else there’s a “leave me alone, let me do this until I get to the end, then you can screw with it.” That seems to be working better all the time. We’re writing a pilot right now so I think we both think it’s great and we’ve never written anything faster. We started it about a week ago and we’re almost done. And usually it took us three weeks in the old format to write a pilot. Maybe I’m overzealous, but I think it’s the best thing we’ve done.
Paul: It’s really helped us by dividing and then combining at the end of the day. It’s allowed us to get through this volume of work. Working on the two comic books that have two overlapping deadlines sometimes, and also get our screenwriting done and get our pilot writing done at the same time.
Danny: I believe we’re going to announce our original at Comic-Con, and that’ll be fun to talk about too because that is pretty cool.
Paul: And we’ve got an awesome artist that I won’t reveal.
CF: You talk about this combination between the two of you, it sounds a lot easier, faster —are there downsides?
Paul: Well, if you write with somebody, you will develop a process that you are comfortable with or not, and the fact that we’ve been doing it together for literally decades now — there is a certain amount of give and take and compromise that you make when you work that closely with someone else. We’ll get to the point where we argue about lines or plot point or something and we figure out a way to do it to make us both happy. You find that you have different strengths. Some writers work better alone and some don’t. I think that for us the combination of what we both do, the end result is better than it would be if it we did it alone.
CF: Like you mentioned before, TV is a writer’s medium, but in comics you have to be incredibly reliant on the artist. Was it scary giving up that much control?
Danny: No, what we did was called our partner and mentor in comics, Howard Chaykin, and we said, “What do we do? And how does this work?” And he said, “The artist, in his mind, is 50 percent responsible for the book.” I found that to be liberating. When we write our scripts, they’re descriptive in what angle it is, who it’s featuring, or how many panels on the page, or if it’s vertical. We don’t get crazy on that because we let Ken use his graphic sense to do the layouts and execute it. It’s’ not scary at all. It’s easier that way and we’re not responsible for everything. And I think that when it comes to the action and the superhero stuff and the dramatic, his stuff is pretty amazing. It’s really bold and has a lot of drama to it and energy and I couldn’t ask for anything more. It also feels very modern and contemporary in a way. 2006 comics, not 1980s comics. There’s something about Ken’s stuff that feels very cutting edge contemporary and I think for the Flash, he creates a lot of energy in the action pieces. At one point, and this was a long time ago, he said, “Hey guys, why don’t you give me a two-pager so I can do a big graphic?” So the end of book two is a big graphic. We just got book two today and of course he kills. When it comes to these big graphic scenes, they’re just fantastic.
Paul: In some ways it’s kinda like when you write a television script and you hand it to the director, and even though you created a blueprint with the dialogue and the story, there is going to be a certain amount of interpretation going on. And if anything, an artist in a comic book is bringing even more to it than a director on a TV show episode. The other thing we had to get used to, or at least I did, was that you can have a five-page scene of people taking as long as the content is interesting. But if you visualize that in four pages of a comic book, with just heads talking to each other without any action involved. It gets pretty slow pretty fast. It’s not going to work. What Ken was really able to do was pack a lot of dialogue into the panels on the page in a way it breaks it up in an interesting way so that it doesn’t get old in a dynamic fashion visually, even though it really is just two or three people talking.
For a lot of your careers you’ve done a lot of science fiction-themed works — do you think you by keeping in the genre you’ve pigeon-holed yourself into this culture?
Danny: We do what we like. I don’t want to do the other stuff. I could never write my daughter’s show, The O. C. I just couldn’t write it in a million years and that’s not a disparaging comment at all. We write what we know. We were talking about this yesterday because the pilot we’re writing right now that I’m excited about is straight up, everything we like. The cool thing about TV now is that it’s moved to this serialized content where that’s acceptable. And that allows for writing a big, epic story that could be a 20-hour story. So taking that and saying, “What’s the TV show we want to see the most in that format?” And suddenly we wrote it in a week and we’re really excited about it. So actually, I don’t really care — they can pigeon-hole us as comic book adapters and adventure writers or fantasy/sci-fi writers, I couldn’t be happier. I’d live in that pigeon hole.
Paul: Well, we like bigger than life. That doesn’t mean we couldn’t love and appreciate a great move like Grapes of Wrath.
Danny: And that happens to be my favorite movie.
Paul: But could we write that? I don’t think I have the skills to write that.
Danny: Oh, come on, Paul. Steinback doesn’t hold a candle to you.
Paul: That type of story. It’d be hard for me because it’s not something that …I like stuff that’s bigger than life. We’ve written adventure stories and action stuff that doesn’t have a science fiction element to it. But even that stuff is bigger than life. It’s thriller and stuff like that. You’re not going to see us creating a doctor show or a lawyer show or a family drama, unless the lawyer is from Jupiter. It’s not going to happen.
CF: What’ the most important thing you’ve learned in your writing careers so far?
Paul: Write what you like.
Danny: Well, I have to say it’s the learning process for me. People relate to the emotional realities of other people. And no matter how wild of a story you write, the more harm you put in it that’s believable, the more they’re going to identify with it. And that has been a learning process. Most people write that naturally but I’d say we’re still in the process of getting better and better at that. That’s been a big learning process and I can’t say how important I think that is.