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Between the Panels: Dan DiDio on Going from Comics Fan to Pro, Challenges for the Industry, and the Stories That Moved Him

“Between the Panels” is a bi-weekly interview series focusing on comic book creators of all experience levels, seeking to examine not just what each individual creates, but how they go about creating it.

For anyone who’s followed DC Comics — or comics in general — this century, Dan DiDio needs no introduction here. Dan was generous and open about his love of the medium, along with the up and downs he’s experienced on his journey.  Note that our conversation took place after Dan’s departure from DC but before DC’s departure from Diamond.

First off, the basics…

Your specialties: Writer/Editor/Publisher

Your home base: Burbank, CA

Social Media

Facebook: Dan.Didio

Instagram: @dan.didio2020

Twitter: “I equate Twitter as drinking from the toilet, and I’m never that thirsty.”

Current Project:

Metal Men (DC)

Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: As usual, I’ll start with the macro. Why comics? What attracts you to working in the comics field specifically?

Dan DiDio: I’ve always been a fan of the medium, and it’s always traveled with me in any job that I’ve ever done. I worked in children’s television, in animation, even publicity. And in all of that, I’ve found a way to work comics in.

I’m going to quote Paul Levitz on this, something he said to me when I was first interviewing for the job at DC — he said that comics is a creative sweet spot. Meaning that you can do things that are highly commercial and get paid a lot of money but give up a lot of creative freedom; or you can do things totally based on your own creative vision but probably be starving in doing that. But in comics you find a middle ground between commerce and art, where you’re able to get your voice on a page in a collaborative manner and still be able to make a good living out of it.

KS: I wanted to ask about when comics first came into your life as a reader. Since kids back in the pre-direct market days had to live in a “catch as catch can” mode, what were your early buying habits?

DD: People used to take me to the store and buy me one or two comics to keep me happy, but it wasn’t until late 1970 or early ’71 when I started buying [for myself] on a regular basis. I was 10 or 11 years old, buying comics because I enjoyed the monster titles… Where Monsters Dwell, Monsters on the Prowl, House of Mystery, House of Secrets. Through them was how I started to expand out into other types of comics.

KS: And those weird books were your gateway to superheroes?

DD: House of Secrets and Swamp Thing got me into the DCU. Monsters on the Prowl and Xemnu the Titan got me into The Defenders, which got me into the Marvel Universe.

KS: Fanbase Press launched the #StoriesMatter initiative this year to highlight the impact that stories can have on their audience.  Looking back, what were the stories that had an impact on you as a reader?

DD: When I first started collecting, you could feel a story that mattered [because] it took on added weight. There were so many for me… The Avengers-Defenders War, The Death of Gwen Stacy, Captain America versus the Secret Empire. If you want to go to DC, one of the first I read was Justice League Of America #97, when they’re fighting Starbreaker. Starbreaker defeats the JLA so horribly that they have to rewatch their origin to inspire themselves to fight him again. As a kid, it was so clever; as an adult, I kinda know that it was just a fill-in issue. [Laughter.]

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KS: Right before that epic team-up in issue #100.

DD: All kidding aside, one of the finest DC stories I ever read was that crossover with the Seven Soldiers of Victory from #100-102. Fabulous crossover, just brilliant. That story matters to me, not just because of how it was told but because of the people who told it.

[Author’s Note: The three-parter was written by Len Wein, illustrated by Dick Dillin & Joe Giella, and edited by Julie Schwartz.]

KS: What was your relationship like with Len?

DD: He was an unofficial mentor to me about the making of comics, how to do — and not to do — things over the years. My first encounter with Len was when I was a teenager wanting to learn more about getting into the business. Believe it or not, Len’s aunt was good friends with my sister, and they actually put me on the phone with him. That was when he first said a line to me which he said about three different times in my life: “Don’t get into comics, kid. It’ll break your heart.” He was more right than wrong.

KS: Moving on to that idea of working in comics, roughly when did the notion first arise for you?

DD: I was always interested in trying to write for comics. I’ve got a folder of rejection letters dating back to ’76 or ’78, which is one of my better collections. To be perfectly honest, I never really thought of working for a comic company; my history and my background were in television. By the time I interviewed at DC, I had 20 years of TV behind me. The irony of ironies is that the reason I interviewed was not because I wanted to work in comics, it was because I wanted to work back on the east coast — I had been bi-coastal and I was looking for some stability! [Laughter.]

But I sat down with Paul, and he was looking for someone with an outside point of view and with a knowledge of comics. Honestly, I thought it was a short term gig until I found my next TV job. I would up staying for 18 years, go figure.

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KS: I won’t ask if moving from TV into comics was easy, but had you built enough of a skills “toolbelt” by that time that made the learning curve less severe than it might have been otherwise?

DD: A couple of things. I love the business of comics as much as the comics themselves — not the squabbles and the fighting and the personalities, but the actual construction. I love the backstory behind things. If I enjoy it, I want to know what it took to make it; if I didn’t enjoy it, I want to know what went wrong. Plus, I had friends in the business who filled me in on things that helped round me.

The toolbelt is that every job I’ve ever had, you take one aspect of that job to really round out your skill set. I used to work in [TV] affiliate relations, and that helped me work with the stores and understand the different regions of the country having different needs. I worked in publicity, so I knew the ideas behind sales and marketing. I worked in soap operas, and used to sit in on the meetings to understand the construction of stories and character arcs — and also to change direction when something breaks out, to follow what seems to working best. In TV development for kids’ product I learned how to develop ideas and turn them into something actionable. The last piece, working in physical animation, was about building the right teams to make sure you had the right people to assemble your product… but also to know when to input your own ideas and when to let go.

KS: Fans on the outside get excited about characters, storylines, meeting talent at conventions, etc. Can you give us an example of what makes a comics pro pump their fist in excitement?  

DD: A pro becoming a fan is a dangerous spot, meaning [that] they’re working with people or ideas or concepts that excited them when they were fans. It’s a good thing because they’re excited and passionate; it’s a bad thing because they’ve got blinders on and they can’t see a project objectively.

What would get the staff excited is when something came in better than expected. It’s something you know when it lands on a table. You’ve spent so much time discussing an idea, a story, you’ve beaten it to death for six or seven months, and then all of a sudden the page comes in… and it either disappoints because it’s nowhere near what you thought it would be, or it comes in so above expectation that you realize you’re holding a piece of gold. All of a sudden you realize “We’ve got something.” Those are fewer than you think they are, but when they come in, a jaded staff is turned into a bunch of kids.

KS: Were there times you personally had to take a conscious step back to separate your fan self from your publisher self?

DD: You have to separate the fan from the publisher all the time.  My taste in comics was developed when I first started reading them.  When you’re publishing a line of books as large as DC, you cannot expect a line that caters to one taste — you need to diversify the line as much as possible so it appeals to the widest fan base.  Besides the fact that you can’t expect everyone to buy everything.  So, there are books that I would not want to read or buy, but we need to publish because there is an audience for them.

KS: How has that reading experience changed for you over the years? Are you at all able to kick back as a fan, even for books you had nothing to do with?

DD: I can’t read a comic for fun anymore. When I was at DC, if [a book] exceeded my expectations then the other half of my brain kicked in to say we had to make sure to promote it properly, make sure sales was behind it, make sure all other aspects were lined up to get it out.  

If somebody else had a good comic, then I got angry because they had a good comic. [Laughter.] If a bad comic sold more than DC, then I hated them because it sold more. So, I can only enjoy the comics from before I got there; I know what’s in the sausage, so to speak.

KS: We saw quite an eclectic assortment of characters from the company’s history show up during your time there, in series like Wonder Twins, Dial H, Prez, Kamandi Challenge, and even The Green Team! Were there any other “lost” names you wanted to dust off over the years that never quite worked out for whatever reason?

DD: I got to turn over a lot of rocks and make some pretty deep cuts. The only ones I really regret not getting to were Sea Devils — which I had an amazing pitch by Jeff Lemire that I desperately wanted to do — and taking an obscure character called The Barsto Beast, and making him a member of one of the supernatural teams.

KS: What are your thoughts on the old “Every issue is someone’s first issue” maxim from an earlier time in the industry? To what degree do you think that should still be considered by companies in the current marketplace?

DD: That’s a very multi-faceted question without a simple answer. [Former Marvel Editor In Chief] Jim Shooter was 100% correct that every comic is somebody’s first. The problem is that the delivery system, and the way we sell comics, no longer allows it to be everybody’s first. We’ve eliminated that opportunity from the marketplace; because of that, I think we’ve really isolated our audience in a way that doesn’t allow ourselves to grow. We’re moving as one big group, which is disappointing because, sooner or later, people drop out for whatever reason. It’s hard to replenish that because you’ve built a lot of what I call “bad habits” into the system, and therefore to get back to the point of being someone’s first comic forces those reboots and those things that aggravate the rest of the audience.

I would love to think that, with every new #1, we’re getting people to jump onboard — but I think we’re really just getting the same people to buy the new #1. The more the industry leans on collectability, variant covers — everything that’s built on collector interest instead of story interest — diminishes that opportunity to bring new people in. One of my biggest fears has always been escalation of price to offset the loss of audience, so it looks like you’re sitting at the same number when actually you’re weakening your base.

KS: Is there some way to realistically serve both audiences? For example, could you have the regular Batman title alongside a new-reader-friendly one?

DD: You do have that new-reader-friendly title. It’s called Dark Knight Returns; it’s called Batman Year One. The industry has changed dramatically. I’ve been reading almost 50 years of comics nonstop — except for the late ’90s, and I’m not alone on that one. [Laughter.]

The comics I grew up on were out there and were gone. Now, things can sit on the shelf, so the reality is that what you’re putting out currently is in competition with everything else you’ve put out to date. If somebody buys that early entry point and wants that classic interpretation, they can’t find it anywhere else. So, you’re caught in this weird chasm between these two audiences, and unfortunately at this moment neither audience is appreciable enough to carry it all the way through.

KS: To bring this back to the earlier question about where you bought comics, how do you see the direct market’s role in the current status quo?

DD: We’re still working within a closed infrastructure on delivery and sales, and that’s something else that needs to expand outward. In my conversations at DC over the years, one of the things Paul told me was that there was a choice made when the direct market started up, to go with all superheroes because that’s what the market craved. They were cancelling profitable books in other genres from the newsstand — war books, horror, Westerns — so we don’t get that cross-section anymore. Every choice that we’ve made to keep the industry alive narrows the audience tighter and tighter. Less genres, less stores, higher prices, variant covers…  narrow, narrow, narrow. All the choices being made to keep the industry alive may be shortchanging it in regards to longevity, because it’s not allowing new people to come in.  

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KS: We can segue from there to some lighter topics. First off, what’s an early “holy grail” back issue you remember hunting for?

DD: Let’s see… New Gods #1. Howard The Duck #1. Just recently, within the last year, I bought Conan The Barbarian #1. For some reason, that’s one of those books I never thought I’d own — there’s a kid part of your brain that kicks in where you think you could never afford it. The good part is, I could afford it.

KS: What earlier era of comics do you think it would’ve been fun to work in, other than the one you actually did?

DD: Late 60s DC and early ’70s Marvel.  There were wild, crazy, “try anything” books where the existing talent and new wave of fans as pros tried to change the perception of comics to keep up with the times.  Lots of misses and good intentions as they tried to keep pace with the changing culture and create heroes that reflected the world around them. The fun is seeing the beauty in all the characters created regardless of how silly they seem now.  For me, that’s what comics are all about.

KS: Who would be your go-to artist from the history of comics to write a single story for?

DD: I got to do that. What happened was, Wednesday Comics is getting done — [former DC Art Director] Mark Chiarello’s pulling it together — and at the last minute, a team dropped out. He needed one more team. He must’ve been desperate because he called me and asked, “Do you want to work with Jose Garcia-Lopez?” And I’m like, “In!” Then, he goes, “On Metal Men?” “Double in!” The only thing that I’m upset about is that, as we were working on the book, all I was thinking was that I had to buy a page of the art afterwards. I called Jose up after it was all done and he said — he’s such a gracious, dear man — “I’m sorry, that’s all been sold.” Even before we started! Garcia-Lopez and [inker] Kevin Nowlan. I was crushed.

KS: That’s painful just to hear. Did you ultimately get to work with any other talent you’d admired back in your fan days?

DD: Steve Gerber. Len. Marv Wolfman. Steve Englehart. Gerry Conway. Gerber, in particular for me, was an important one. That was special, because I didn’t realize until I worked with him how much he influenced me in his stories and sensibilities.

Going back to your earlier question about stories that were important, there was one he did in Giant-Size Man-Thing #4. He gets all the attention for the Howard The Duck backup, but the lead Man-Thing story is possibly one of the best I’ve ever read in comics. People can confuse importance with relevance; what’s important to me isn’t that it’s making a statement, it’s a story that touches you and speaks directly to you. So much of what Gerber wrote spoke directly to me.

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KS: Would college-age Dan be surprised at the arc of your professional life?

DD: Absolutely. I’m actually very proud of how ridiculous my career path has been. I went from a page at CBS, to operations manager, then to affiliate relations, then publicity for the soap operas. After that I went into children’s programming as a director of development, then into creative affairs for an animation company. And then I joined DC as a VP of editorial… and somehow I wound up becoming publisher. Go figure that one out!

College-age Dan would say, “You know, you’re not qualified for any of those jobs. Somebody’s gonna catch on sooner or later!” [Laughter.]

KS: What’s a comic from anywhere on the historical spectrum that you’d point to as an example of the craft at its highest form?

DD: Fantastic Four #34-50 is the sweet spot for Lee and Kirby. The level of inventiveness, creativity, scope, and excitement. The pacing in those books. The amount of ideas coming at you — it’s a textbook example of the ability of comics to deliver awe and spectacle. I could read that over and over, and wish I could be a fraction as successful in 18 years as they were in those issues.

KS: Finally, circling back around to the Metal Men, you’re about to wrap up your run on the title. Tell us what we should be on the lookout for the rest of this year.

DD: Metal Men is my main focus. This is a passion project for me; I’ve had the story in me for so long, and I’m really enjoying working with [artist] Shane Davis. Honestly, it scratches the ultimate comic book writing itch for me.

Beyond that, a lot of my time and attention right now are back in my old haunts of animation. I was nervous about moving back into that area, but it’s fitting extraordinarily well, and this feels like the right time to be doing things in that area. So, we’ll see how it all turns out.

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Kevin Sharp, Fanbase Press Contributor



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