“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 a comprehensive tour of comics editorial, one needs look no further than Will Dennis. From coming in the doors at DC as an assistant editor, to witnessing the transformation of Vertigo, to editing his own books, to controversies, to the freelance life, to starting at ground zero with Scott Snyder’s new publishing venture — if Will hasn’t seen it all, he must be getting close.
First off, the basics…
Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): Editor
Your home base: Brooklyn, NY
Other sites you use: bestjackettpress.com
Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: Why comics? What is the appeal of working in this medium for you personally?
Will Dennis: I was a comic book fan my whole life and sort of through a really oddly roundabout way got the job. For me, it was the first thing that really felt like it could be a career ‘cause it kind of combined all of the dopey stuff that I was into my whole life that everybody said wouldn’t amount to anything. I knew just a little bit about a lot of different subjects, at least in terms of being an editor — I have interest in comics, story, literature, design, art, all that sort of stuff. [Comics] kind of combines all those elements, so that to me was the perfect combination. It was particularly all the stuff that everybody told you your whole life, “Why are you wasting time?” I don’t know, but it finally paid off. If I had a time machine, I could go back and put it in everyone’s face. [laughter]
KS: In a big-picture sense, can you contrast comics to your previous media career stop?
WD: I worked in the film business before this, doing publicity for a lot of indie films in the ‘90s, in New York when it was exciting. Everybody had an indie film, everybody was going to Sundance and people were coming back millionaires, but it was just kinda an ugly business. I’m sure it still is. You’d see people overnight just turned into real… not very nice people. People that you’d seen come up and work on a film and take it to a festival, then suddenly they wouldn’t return your phone calls. In comics, there’s hardly any rock stars. Who’s the most recognizable comic person? Maybe Neil Gaiman? But if you stop Neil and talk to him on the street, you probably have a lovely conversation with the guy and that’s about it. So, comics was such a nice, refreshing change in that respect — to work in a business where people by and large are pretty humble, pretty kind to each other. I mean, there’s obviously exceptions in every business, but it just has never been as cutthroat and nasty as the film business was.
KS: Going back to the very beginning, you grew up in New York, is that right?
WD: Ithaca, New York, near the Finger Lakes.
KS: What was your media diet growing up? Comics or any other things you were consuming.
WD: Oh, I was one of those kids that… I can never say I was a nerd. I played sports and had lots of friends, so I would never pretend I was just sitting home alone in my room. I was kind of a “closet nerd” in those years. Whatever it was I was into, I was crazy into it — which happened to be, like, everything. [laughter] I would stay up and watch movies until three o’clock in the morning. My dad was super into science fiction; I think the first real movie he took me to was [when] they rereleased 2001 in the early ‘70s. He loved Star Trek, The Prisoner, all this crazy stuff. So, we had a pretty steady diet of that kind of stuff; it was always in reruns when I was a kid. And then, ‘cause we lived in the sticks in central New York, we were one of the first people that had HBO. Cable was basically invented for people out in the middle of nowhere, so we would watch anything that was on HBO. My dad would let us stay up… if Road Warrior was on at midnight, “All right, we’re gonna stay up and watch that.” He took me and my brother and a friend of ours to see Star Wars opening night.
KS: How did comics fit into all this?
WD: My brother and I were super into music and collecting. I was collecting baseball cards like crazy. I definitely had a kind of a collector mentality for a lot of these things, and comics were in there, too. This was before comic shops, but we were also fortunate ‘cause Ithaca was a college town — Cornell, Ithaca College — so there’s always this huge influx of young people coming in. Back in those days, comics were really like a college kinda thing; I think the whole Marvel revival in the ‘60s was basically built around college kids buying comics. We lived right off the Cornell campus, so we had a bunch of places around campus that sold comics on spinner racks. Then, very early on was Ithacon, which I think is the second-longest running comic convention after San Diego in the country. We had these conventions every year starting in the early ‘70s. Until they sent me to San Diego Comic-Con in 2001 for DC, that was the only other convention I’d ever been to.
KS: So, you were not only getting exposed to genre material at home, but it sounds like it was all part of your general surroundings even outside the house.
WD: At some point, they opened a Dungeons & Dragons store in town, so I was playing D&D [at] like 10, 11. We would go to Cornell and they had clubs with the students, and they would let us play. Then, they opened this store in the downtown called the Dragon’s Lair or something like that. It was a D&D shop, but at the very back they put these tables out, and the same guy who started Ithacon put out his long boxes and started selling comics. Eventually, the D&D stuff kind of died down, around the same time they started the [comics] Direct Market. So, they just turned the shop into a comic shop; it became the shop that’s still there. That was the early ‘80s, so we were fortunate to have HBO and a Direct Market comic shop probably long before most other people did.
KS: What were young Will’s comic tastes like?
WD: I was mostly reading Marvel stuff. I would read Batman, of course, ‘cause everybody read Batman. The very first comic I ever remember buying was a Batman comic — I don’t know the issue number of the Detective Comics, but I can picture the cover. I think it was either a Neal Adams cover or it might have been one of the Neal Adams knockoffs, the Irv Novicks, guys that were doing that kinda stuff.
KS: You’ve brought up the sweet pain of memory for me. In my early days of buying back issues when you’d see all the ‘70s DC’s with the Adams covers, and then it’s one of the DC house artists doing interiors. As an adult, I can appreciate the craftsmanship, but as a kid when you’re promised Adams on the cover…
WD: Oh yeah. Then, we spent years tricking people with doing that at Vertigo. My wife used to always complain about Sandman. She was like, “I love these covers, but why does the inside look like this?” [laughter] For years, that was the model of Vertigo: Wrap the sexy cover onto art that was sometimes slightly questionable.
KS: At Fanbase Press, our #StoriesMatter initiative endeavors to highlight the impact that stories can have on audiences of various mediums. Does anything come to mind as far as any stories that really wowed you somewhere along the way?
WD: That’s a good one. In my really young days, I remember buying a run of Incredible Hulk where he gets shrunk down?
KS: I loved that storyline! Tiny Hulk and his girlfriend, Jarella.
WD: I don’t know why it sticks in my head, maybe just from a nostalgic standpoint. The ones that would really have had more of an impact on my understanding of what comics could be would definitely be later, like mid ‘80s. Dark Knight Returns was a huge thing. Matt Wagner’s Grendel was just wild, you know? After that, I would say the Love and Rockets stuff. I was really into the Ramones and punk rock music and going to punk rock shows, but living in upstate New York in a predominantly white, very middle class existence… to see those guys telling stories about neighborhoods in LA or Mexico, that might as well have been on Mars.
KS: Was the punk rock attitude and atmosphere of those early Love and Rockets years your way in, so to speak?
WD: It was just so different than anything that we had experienced, but they were talking about a lot of the same stuff, a lot of the same bands. I remember feeling a very interesting connection in that respect through the comics — that kinda stuff wasn’t on TV, there wasn’t movies about it. It was suddenly like, wow, it’s kinda cool that there’s other people out there that like the same bands, like the same kind of stuff, have the characters in the comics reading comics. As I said, this was all completely underground. I would go to the comic shop — in those days, every Friday was new comic day — and it was right across from the McDonald’s where everybody would hang out. They’d give it to you in a brown paper bag, you’d look both ways up the street coming out —I might as well have been going into an adult bookstore. [laughter]
KS: You went to college for Radio, TV, and Film. Why that major? What possible career paths were you envisioning?
WD: I honestly didn’t have any vision about it. I was a bit of a dilettante about all these things, which ultimately paid off because if I would get into something, I would get deeply into it. You’d go through periods where you’re just into art and art history, or you’re just into history, or whatever the thing was. I’d gone away to school to UMass for a couple of years and I wasn’t very happy, so I transferred back to Ithaca College, which still had a fairly well known communications program. And my mom worked there, so I got a break on tuition. At the time, [it was] the closest thing that would capture all of the stuff that I had seemingly wasted so much time doing. But again, I didn’t really have a plan. When I got out of college, I kicked around for a little while, and then finally landed the job in film publicity. Ultimately, getting the job at DC was through a person I’d met at Ithaca, so I guess it did pay off in that respect.
KS: That was Shelly Bond, right?
WD: Yeah. We had an 8:00 in the morning screenwriting class, so I didn’t really get to that class very often. [laughter] But Shelly was there at 7:45 with her pencil sharpened, ready to take notes. We started talking, and she’d fill in the gaps for me when I wouldn’t show up. At the time, I had been working part-time at the comic shop, Fridays and sometimes on Sundays. New comics came in on Friday, so Sunday you just spent the day restocking the shelves essentially, doing inventory and reorders, all that kinda stuff. They paid me $5 an hour in credit, so if I worked I could be banking maybe 50 bucks a week in credit; I could have bought every comic in the store twice!
KS: Did you two bond, no pun intended, over comics at all during that time?
WD: One of the assignments in the screenwriting class was to take a medium and translate it into screenwriting format. And so, being really lazy, I was like, well, these comics are already made that way. The panel descriptions in those days basically told you what was in the panel, the characters would be thinking about what they were gonna do, and then they would do it. Shelly somehow got the idea… I said, “Come out to the shop and we’ll find something.” She’d never been in a comic store before. She showed up and she was like the gorillas in 2001 when they see the monolith. [laughter]
KS: Approximately when would this have been, in the sense of what books she would have encountered?
WD: 1987? Fall of ‘87. So, you’re walking into the shop and on the shelf is like Grendel, Love and Rockets, the First Comics stuff, probably the Watchman and Dark Knight trades by then. It was just a crazy time to be suddenly discovering this medium, and she just went full into it, you know, insanely into it. Then, she got a job working at Comico as soon as she left.
KS: Not to get too sidetracked into Shelly’s story, but she goes from you introducing her to the world of comics directly to working for a publisher?
WD: She was from around Philadelphia, and Bob Shreck and Diane Shutz were working at Comico at the time out of some house outside Philadelphia. Eventually, they moved and went to Dark Horse, and Comico shut down. Then, Karen [Berger] hired Shelly when she was launching Vertigo in the early ‘90s. So, Shelly came to New York, got the job, found an apartment like a block from the DC offices, and then started working there as they launched Vertigo.
KS: Had you kept in touch at all post-college?
WD: We had lost touch and then, I dunno, ‘98 I think it was, I was living in York, working in film publicity. I’d gone home for the weekend to see my dad and hang out a little bit in my hometown. I’m standing in the kitchen of his house and the phone rings and I hear him: “Oh, it’s funny that you called ‘cause he’s standing right here.” I’m talking to her, how are you doing, blah blah blah, and she said, “I’m in New York working at Vertigo.”
KS: Do you know why she reached out to you after so many years?
WD: Yeah. I think she’s probably told the story. There was a handful of editors there: Stuart Moore, Alisa Kwitney, Shelly, Lou Stathis. I wish I’d met Lou, he just seemed like a crazy character… a kind of character that doesn’t probably exist much anymore, a very New York, kind of bohemian dude. He was working on a lot of these kind of oddball books. He and Shelly couldn’t be more opposite, but they got into a relationship. Then, Lou out of nowhere got diagnosed with brain cancer and died fairly quickly from what I gathered — this was before my time. Axel Alonso had been his assistant, literally sitting in the corner.
I remember Shelly saying to me [on the phone], “I’m trying to reconnect with people” because she literally spent all these months nurturing this guy through this very harrowing experience. Probably in the time she should’ve taken a break, but knowing Shelly she just started working twice as hard. So, some of it was trying to just reconnect with people, old friends and people that she’d lost touch with. And because she loved comics so much, we had this weird connection [where] I was the person who got her into comics essentially.
KS: Beyond just reconnecting, did she give a sense of having you in mind as a possible hire?
WD: It started out that we just kinda hung out, had lunch, that kinda stuff. Then, at some point she was like, “These jobs are open if you want to apply for this job.” So, I applied for the job as her assistant, which at the time was a big downward step for me, because I was making a lot of money running this boutique publicity firm… but I didn’t like it at all really by then. So, I interviewed with Karen, and they gave me this job as [Shelly’s] assistant.
KS: I’m guessing the pay wasn’t what you’d grown accustomed to.
WD: I think the starting salary was like $26,500 or something like that. That was fall of ‘99. Axel hadn’t left for Marvel yet. Alisa was sort of part time coming in and doing some stuff. Stuart left soon after I got there. Cliff Chiang had been assisting Stuart, then they moved him over to assist Shelly, but he had really wanted to pursue the art stuff, so he left at the same time — which is then how the opening came.
KS: You’d done no work like this before. Did it feel like a good landing spot for you? Were you happy you’d made the leap?
WD: Oh yeah, almost immediately. I was like, I get paid to work on this stuff. It’s weird, ‘cause 100 Bullets had just come out that summer and I had bought it at the shop I was going to on 23rd street, Cosmic Comics. Then, three or four months later, I was working, not on that, but the woman I shared my office with was the assistant on 100 Bullets. I wore a suit and tie my very first day, and everyone there mocked me so mercilessly. Axel berated me the whole day, “Lose the suit, that’s not how we do it here, that’s for the executives to wear.” Everybody’s wearing ratty T-shirts or whatever. Everybody’s offices are filled with toys and comics, and there’s music coming out of people’s offices. It was such a fun environment, like you really had gotten a golden ticket.
KS: You’ve talked before of how Vertigo and “real” DC were kind of different kingdoms. Do you think you were a better fit at Vertigo between those two options?
WD: Oh, for sure. I mean, DC was great for the genre stuff, right? As a kid, when they were doing war books and horror books; the only DC stuff I really would read a lot of was like House of Mystery, House of Secrets, Sergeant Rock, that kind of stuff. Marvel was primarily the superheroes, which as a kid, that was fine. When I got to Vertigo, it was a cool fit in terms of, I knew all the superhero stuff, but my real love [was] the genre stuff, whether it was science fiction or, I read every crime novel under the sun for like 20 years. Axel had started to push what they could do. Maybe Lou started a little bit, but it was really Axel who got them to push away from the kind of dark fantasy stuff that was really their bread and butter through most of the ‘90s. When he left, I had a much more mainstream sensibility than almost anybody else that worked there, probably much to Karen’s annoyance. [laughter] Karen liked the fact that we were so isolated and insulated.
We weren’t even on the same floor as the DCU. We were on the top floor of the building and believe me, we let everybody know it. Up until then, Vertigo was like a really closed little set. I started to feel like, okay, there’s probably a niche for me where it’s stuff that’s a little more mainstream, but still has like some kind of edge to it or some sort of point of view to it, which is always the kind of “Vertigo mandate.”
KS: Along the way, you get promoted from assistant to associate editor. Fans see those titles on the credits page, but may not know what exactly the jobs entail. Could you talk briefly about how your life changed, other than a paycheck I assume?
WD: I was older than a typical assistant. I was probably already in my early 30s when I got the job. I literally took a 75% pay cut or something to do it, gigantic pay cut. [My wife] knew I was not happy doing what I was doing, so she was supportive of me taking this kind of chance. When I went into the place, I remember frankly talking to Karen and saying, “Look, I’m not a 22-year-old who just got out college here. I can’t do this for ten years.” ‘Cause there were these horror stories of assistants who’ve been there for 15 years and never moved up the ladder. I was really frank that if I’m not moving up here soon, I need to leave. I can’t be making $26,000 a year for 10 years just because I love comics so much.
So yeah, when I got promoted to associate, along with a slight pay bump, that was the tier you had to make then to edit your own books. As an assistant, they wouldn’t let you edit your own book. You could work on all these books but you couldn’t actually helm a book.
KS: What was your working relationship with Shelly once you weren’t her assistant anymore?
WD: Shelly, again to her credit — sadly these days, I don’t think this probably happens as much because I think there’s just so much more of a grind now than there maybe was then — took a lot of time out of her schedule to train me. We would literally have sessions where we would sit down and she would show me: Here’s how you balloon pages or here’s how you mark up a script or here’s how you make notes. When she would get cover sketches in, she would call me and we’d go sit down and look at them and talk about what she liked, what she didn’t like, that kinda stuff. A lot of editors won’t do that because they don’t have the time, they don’t have the knowledge, or they don’t want to potentially be training the person that is either gonna leave you and then you gotta find someone else, or replace you.
KS: Your first book came along around this time?
WD: Her thing was like, “Okay, if you’re gonna get associate, we gotta find something to work on that you should be doing yourself.” So then, we started talking to Ed Brubaker, who she was working with on a project. He ended up doing the Dead Boy Detectives miniseries, which was those Sandman characters and [did] it as sort of a Hardy Boys/Encyclopedia Brown, but kind of mature. That was the first thing I worked on my own. Then, what happened was, Axel left very suddenly to go to Marvel in October of 2000, and there was no one to edit 100 Bullets. So, Karen put me in charge, and it was okay for the Powers That Be that I edit 100 Bullets as an associate.
In summer of 2001, Karen essentially rolled the dice on me and promoted me to editor; she went to Paul [Levitz] and went to bat for me. Paul called me in and told me they were promoting me, and he made this huge fuss about how it was the record for coming in the door to be an editor. I love Paul, but if you know Paul and the way you he delivers a line, it was just like, “I think it’s the fastest anyone’s become editor, so don’t screw it up.” I had gone from walking in the door in October of 1999 to becoming a full editor in June of 2001. They sent me to San Diego like two weeks later; I had no idea what the hell I was doing there. And after that, you were sort of off to the races.
KS: I’ve heard you say that you’d be the worst person to look back and do a career retrospective, because you don’t have a detailed recall of all of these projects that you had your fingerprints on. I thought instead we might try a “sampler platter” from your varied list of titles, where I’ll read one off and you give me whatever pops in your head. Because you brought it up already, let’s start with 100 Bullets.
WD: When I first got the job, I faxed a letter to Eduardo Risso saying, “Dear Mr. Risso, You don’t know me, but my name is Will Dennis and I just became your editor.
I promise I’ll try not to screw it up. If there’s anything you ever need, please fax me back at this number.” [laughter]
It was ridiculous. Then, the same week I did that, we were looking for a cover from Dave Johnson. I didn’t know Dave, I didn’t know anybody hardly. Brian [Azzarello] had said, “Maybe he can do a cover that looks like this” ‘cause Brian didn’t even know what the story was. To this day, I don’t know if they did this as a joke, but he had me do a stick figure layout of this cover and I faxed it over to Dave. Every morning the first thing was you’d go check the fax machine, because scripts would come in, art pages would come in, pitches, everything would be on the fax machine. It’d be a huge stack of paper in the morning. There was a letter on top. It was my drawing and written over it in Sharpie that said “I don’t f—king work like this. Never do this again. Love, Dave Johnson.” [laughter] I have a lot of 100 Bullets stories, but that first couple of weeks… a little rough.
WD: Brian was still writing it and we were just taking so much heat for being the Americans to work on Hellblazer. People would literally write letters into the office complaining about how these Americans were ruining Hellblazer. I remember at the time I took over, it was this story where John is in… it was like Dog Patch or something [Doglick], this sort of West Virginia Appalachia town. And there’s a scene in one of the books where supposedly John has sex with a dog, but if you read the thing again and read it closely, that’s not what happened. We get these letters all the time: “I can’t believe that you had John Constantine having sex with a dog, this is all the ideas you Americans come up with, blah, blah.” So that series I’d loved written by Garth Ennis, Jamie Delano, Warren Ellis — we’re gonna run this thing right into the ground. [laughter]
KS: If only we had time to go through your whole resume! How about one of the non-Vertigo books you had a hand in, Before Watchmen?
KS: That was a big swing of a project.
WD: Dan DiDio is a New York Mets fan, but he’d be great to play on the Yankees ‘cause he either strikes out or hits a home run. There’s nothing in between with Dan. Karen was very against doing it, which I understand. I was against doing it from a purist standpoint and Alan Moore standpoint, but Karen was like, “They’re gonna do it, so I need somebody on the inside who can at least help with this stuff.” She pushed to have somebody from Vertigo work on the stuff and because of the people that were working on it — Azzarello, Bermejo — it made sense for me to do it. So, I became sort of like the double agent a little bit — maybe we can have as much possible impact on it not just being like a f—king cash grab, which obviously it was on some level. Alan Moore put a curse on it. [laughter] There’s no question when you think of like how sideways it went: guys fighting with each other, [J. Michael] Straczynski and Darwyn Cooke; Darwyn tried to get me fired at one point; Joe Kubert passed away in the middle of it and I worshiped Joe. One thing after another, where you just sort of think: Is there anything else that could go wrong with this goddamn thing?
KS: In hindsight, do you think there was a flaw in the conception of that specific project, or is it something more intrinsic to Watchmen in general?
WD: I thought the HBO show was good; I thought that was an interesting way to take the core material and expand upon it. The problem we had was that I think the joke is that Alan knows that those characters are all cutouts, right? Watchmen being this sort of meta take on comics and what comics are, when you’re taking Charlton characters that are just stand-ins for DC and Marvel characters, essentially, [so you’re] two or three levels removed from anything that’s really kind of core and substance, right? If it’s a Xerox of a DC character that then gets Xeroxed down to a Watchmen character, and then now we’re taking a Xerox of that and doing something else… when we got the hood up on all this kind of stuff, I remember having long conversations with Brian, because he was frustrated. You want to think that there’s gonna be this shiny, cool engine under here that we can go play with, but there wasn’t. There wasn’t more to the characters, there was less to the characters, because once we took them out of the puzzle that Dave [Gibbons] and Alan had created, we couldn’t fit it back together again — the characters only functioned interestingly in the context of the Watchmen puzzle, you know what I mean? Rorschach, he’s just crazy.
I think Alan Moore is the smartest guy probably on the Earth in some weird ways. I know he knows that, and I’m sure he was laughing his ass off the whole time knowing, “Yeah, go ahead. Pick it apart and see what happens.” He’s somewhere in his castle, laughing at you.
KS: Okay, last title and you teed me up too perfectly with the mention of curses: Batman Damned. On this one you were an editor, but you’d already left DC by that point?
WD: I think I was the first and last non-DC editor that will ever be [used] based on what happened on Batman Damned. “Damned” is a good word for it. [laughter] They had been sort of kicking around these ideas for a while, even while I was still there. I had such a long relationship with Azzarello and with Lee, working on the Joker hardcover, the Watchmen stuff, I was editing Lee’s book, Suiciders, before I left. The real origin story is that I had pitched the Black Label idea years before this. Shelly was the one who came up with the name Black Label; she had an idea for a thing and she was gonna call it Black Label, but she gave it to us.
When Diane Nelson first took over [as DC president], we were talking to Mark Doyle and Shelly and a bunch of people; essentially, we were calling it the “Jokerverse” at the time, because Joker had done so well. That had come out in 2008 and been gangbusters — they’ve sold millions of dollars with that book over the years. “Jokerverse” was taking all the DCU characters and doing the same treatment on them; my idea was that every DC writer, every Vertigo writer, even if they don’t like superheroes has at least one good superhero story in them. So, I put together a whole huge proposal: This guy could do this, this guy could do that. You get all these different writers involved. I had a whole deck. They loved doing decks at that point, PowerPoint decks, ‘cause all the LA people had taken over.
KS: After Dan’s big swing on Before Watchmen, where does he enter this story?
WD: Dan loved the idea because he could see how much money they were making on Joker. It was one of the worst days of my whole career. I don’t even know if I ever told the story. They’re like, “Okay, come to Dan’s office.” Karen’s there. Bob Harras is there because he’s editor in chief at that point. Mark Doyle, who was my assistant at the time. John Cunningham. Bob Wayne. And this is Dan’s office, which is the size of your bathroom probably. We’re all sitting [there] and on the little squawk box — this was pre-Zoom — is Diane and Geoff Johns, because they’re like the “magic makers” in LA, wink, wink. So, they give me the mic and let me pitch Black Label. I’m just talking into the conference call thing; I get done and everyone in the room is nodding and seems excited ‘cause they can see the dollar signs.
And it was crickets chirping [on the other end]. It was the longest, deadest air you’ve ever heard in your life. I was like, “Hello? Are you still there?” I have this vague memory of Diane sort of saying, “Yeah, great, we’ll take that under advisement.” I understand Geoff was out there doing all the development stuff and he had a lot of irons in the fire, and something like this probably overlapped with a lot of the stuff that they were already working on. So, I understand from that standpoint why the reception might have been cooler than it could have been.
KS: I’m a little surprised Geoff didn’t respond to the idea just from a writer’s standpoint. That would be a whole new sandbox to play in.
WD: I was smart enough to have him on the list, though. You wanna do your Green Lantern story and really tell me what a guy without fear is like, ‘cause that guy’s insane. We used to joke that Green Lantern is the dumbest superhero because he’s got the most powerful tool, but the best thing he can do is make a giant baseball glove to catch a runaway rocket ship. The only person who would not fear anything is someone who’s a complete idiot, you know? So anyway, that [meeting] came and went, but they still had liked the idea of doing this Black Label thing. Then years later they picked it up. Jim [Lee] was there; these other people were basically gone and Jim was like, “Why don’t you guys do this thing?” The original idea was we were going to work on that and essentially keep it secret, then just announce that it was out at San Diego — kind of like Taylor Swift dropping some midnight album kind of thing.
We only had a couple people in production that were helping us on it. Everyone else was kind of oblivious to it, which was a really cool idea, I think, but probably ultimately hurt us when the shit hit the fan later. By then Doyle had taken over the Bat group, so he was fine with me working on it; he didn’t have the bandwidth to deal with it anyway. So, we worked on the book and it was fine and everybody was excited and nobody said boo. I mean, it was a mature readers book, labeled mature, and Lee had put the scene in where Batman is in his, essentially his locker room, after a workout and he’s walking around in a towel or whatever. Lee’s amazing at doing the human body; the guy lives in Italy, he’s surrounded by naked statues every time he goes and gets a cup of coffee. It’s not a big deal to him [and] to us it didn’t seem like that big of a deal at all.
KS: This is setting up one of the great “but”s in modern comics history.
WD: They saw all the pages! Jim saw ’em all, Dan saw ‘em, everybody did and nobody thought anything about it. And then the day it comes out, I’m going to Thought Bubble [convention]. Chip Mosher is bringing me over there to work on some stuff. Lee is coming, he’s a guest. We get off the plane and Chip starts texting me: “What the hell is going on with Batman Damned?” And I was like, “I dunno, it comes out today.” [laughter] And he said that he’s getting calls from DC that they’re sending over a patch to the Comixology guys to patch this page. They don’t even know because they get these patches all the time and they just put ’em up; they’re not in the business of censoring the content. If the publisher says, “This page needs to be replaced,” they just send a new page and they replace it on the file and that’s it. But Chip starts getting texts, emails, Twitter messages. He’s suddenly the black hat of comics because he’s censoring Batman’s penis in the Batman Damned issue. And I don’t even remember that there is this thing in there, honestly. I had no idea what the hullabaloo was about. You should’ve seen the scene in the next issue with Harley Quinn, which we were already working on, which was insane, which we ended up having to change.
Then, we spent the whole convention… he’s on the phone with these guys taking all this incoming fire. We’re doing panels about Comixology Originals books [and] guys are standing up and saying, “Why are you censoring DC comics?” The whole thing was just a train wreck. Lee was upset the whole weekend because all the jokers —no pun intended — had run out and bought the issue at the shops in Leeds. He’s signing the whole weekend: “Can you draw Batman’s penis when you do the signature?” You’ve been working on the book for, at that point, probably two years. Lee is very sensitive and very meticulous, and every panel is a beautiful drawing. It looked awesome, the story was cool, and it was gonna open the door to all this stuff… then suddenly it’s just Batman’s penis 24/7, you know? Brian was laughing about it ‘cause it’s Brian’s sense of humor. But it was bad. It was a feel bad when you really were expecting a huge feel good.
KS: With two more issues still to go.
WD: We stumbled through the rest of it. We had to change a bunch of stuff for the second issue. Doyle’s caught in the middle and he was in really hot water for it, which sucked because he had nothing really to do with that part of it. I called Jim and said, “Here’s what you gotta do: Fire me immediately. Because it’ll do two things. It’ll say, ‘We had a renegade editor who didn’t work in the company, didn’t know what he was doing. He used to work on mature reader stuff, but he didn’t understand our standards so we had to fire him because we can’t trust them to deliver these books.’ It’ll get Mark and everyone else off the hook for that. And you’ll make me the most popular, amazing guy in comics, because I’ll be the guy who got fired because of Batman’s penis. I’ll never have to buy another beer again for the rest of my life.” [laughter] And he’s just like, “You’re an idiot.” They didn’t go for it.
We were at New York Comic Con I think two weeks later. We had to go to Jim’s hotel room and have this big summit about what to do about the next issue. It was like pulling teeth after that. Nobody wanted to work on it. We just felt so deflated… not even the reaction of the fans, but people were in trouble in the company, guys were on the verge of losing their jobs and stuff over it. To this day, I think it’s the most moronic thing I’ve ever been a part of. I just can’t understand it, when you work on books like we worked on [at Vertigo]. I mean, have you ever opened up Preacher? Have you ever opened up some of these other books? How much male penis do we see of Yorick in Y the Last Man?
KS: In general, what do you think makes someone a good editor for comics?
WD: The good ones are on the side of talent, even if they work for a huge company. They are first readers, sounding boards, shoulder to cry on, a shield against all the corporate BS, and the one who has the guts to say “no” sometimes, too. The nuts and bolts of comics can be done by anyone, but a good editor is there to enable the talent to feel safe and supported to do their best work. That’s the hard job; being an editor is a piece of cake.
KS: Since leaving DC, you’ve been a freelance editor with Image, Comixology, and now with Scott Snyder’s Best Jackett. You knew Scott from Vertigo, right?
WD: Mark Doyle “discovered” Scott; he’s responsible fully for Scott getting kind of where he got. But I knew Scott from [when] they were having a really hard time with the pitch for American Vampire. It wasn’t really coming together and Karen was not interested in it, and it was looking like it was on its way out. They came to me and were like, “Do you have any thoughts on how to get this done?” My superpower at DC was playing through the system — it was a huge bureaucracy. I don’t think my story chops are so great compared to a lot of other editors that I know, but I think I was good at the talent relationships. I think I still am. Very early on, I kind of gave them a little bit of advice, because getting a pitch approved and doing the series were always two very different things. I was like, “You guys just have to figure out how to get this approved and then you can do whatever the hell you want.” Right. No one goes back and looks at the old pitch and says, “Hey, you promised this was gonna happen on this page or that issue.” I knew what you needed to get it done and then I was confident that we could deliver. It wasn’t smoke and mirrors, it wasn’t a bait and switch. It was just, this is the system and here’s how we game the system — but we can still deliver the goods, which is different than a lot of people. So, Scott and I [had] this relationship and he would often call me and ask for advice about stuff; I was kinda like the adult in the room a lot of the times when they were first starting out.
KS: As someone with so much experience, both on the corporate end and out on your own, why is Best Jackett an attractive career stop for you?
WD: Scott and I talked for years about doing stuff and when I first left DC, I had some plans to kind of do my own publishing venture, which didn’t come together. We just started talking over the years; I mean, he’d worked with Mark for a long time and Mark was still very entrenched in DC. So, it was just, “Well, I can be your indie man over here.” Like you said, I kicked around a lot of these different freelance gigs and I really don’t like freelancing. I have yet to like it at seven and a half years — if I don’t like it by now, I probably won’t ever like it. I liked being in that system of DC for better or worse, and I miss that environment. I probably wouldn’t survive at a company now; when I think of the nature of some of the ways we did stuff, it was a little fratty at times, which I think in 2022 probably thankfully doesn’t fly anymore.
So yeah, Scott and I talked about this stuff for years, and then it came together. He had all these projects and he needed somebody who can project manage, but also dig down on the scripts with him and dig down on the art and bring this level of talent in that either he or I have relationships with that go back long ways. It was kind of the perfect fit. We got into Comixology through a long series of misadventures, but we’re thrilled with the home there.
KS: On that note, I’ll turn the floor over to you. Tell us what you’ve got around the corner, what’s out on the horizon, what fans should be on the lookout for.
WD: Book of Evil should be out the first week of October, in time for NYCC. That’s the next thing in the Best Jackett Comixology wave of rollouts, but it’s different because this is the book that Scott is writing like a novel and Jock is doing spot illustration art, not sequential storytelling art. I think it comes in around 40 pages. It’s like reading a book chock full of really cool art. Emma Price, who does all of our design, is really pushing a lot of stuff. Hopefully, it won’t be too much for the “guided view” on Comixology.
I believe the same week is supposed to be the print edition of Night of the Ghoul, the first issue by Francesco Francavilla and Scott. The arrangement now with Dark Horse is they’re doing single issues. Originally, we were just gonna collect those series in trades, but now because they were successful and the books are really strong, they wanted to do single issues. We’ve collected the first two digital issues of Night of the Ghoul into a single print edition. It’s two issues and a lot of extras, so I think it’s close to 50 or 60 pages. We’re taking the six issues that were digital and putting ’em into three individual supersized issues over the rest of this year. Then, we’ll do the same with Clear, which is the Francis Manapul book.
We just launched the second wave of books with Canary, the Dan Panosian book; Barnstormers, the Tula Lotay book; and Dudley Datson, the Jamal Igle book. Those are all running between five and seven issues each. We also have at least one more book that we’ve announced — a Rafael Albuquerque book — which I think is now more like next year. The only other big thing in October still Best Jackett related is there’s a short story of Wytches in Image’s 30th anniversary anthology. It’s six or seven pages by Jock and Scott, and it will be sort of a short little bridge [before] we can bring the series back next year. It’s a lot of material, but those are the real highlights.
This interview was edited for length.