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A Night At The Met With
Dan Curtis Johnson

FANZING As many readers know, CHASE has become one of my favorite new books. I'd just written my review of CHASE (with an accompanying review of CHRONOS) for Fanzing #4 when I made the happy discovery that its writer, Dan Curtis Johnson, often hangs around in the DC Universe newsgroup! Dan was kind enough to talk with us about CHASE, its lead character, his break into the industry…and a few glimpses of what's to come!
D.C. Johnson Thanks for the good review. I found it somewhat ironic that in your CHRONOS review you mentioned how unlikely Gabriel Walker is, and that he needs some redeeming qualities-- Cameron Chase was actually conceived originally as a somewhat unlikeable person as well, but we softened her up pretty quickly. Having a large supporting cast (sister, fiancee, etc.) means we can show Cameron's human side pretty much on demand; hopefully CHRONOS will develop a supporting cast that does much the same.
FANZING I guess I should properly call you the "scripter and co-plotter of CHASE," as you're now listed in the credits that way.
D.C. Johnson A lot of the credit for things like character choice and how we handle the characters is driven by JH Williams-- the co-plotting credit we share on issues 2 and up is very real; Jimbo's integral to the story direction. So much of the story material that people enjoy so much is directly attributable to Jimbo as much as it is to me (and, in fact, mucho credit should go to [editor] Eddie Berganza, who routinely provides invaluable advice on character choices, story structure, and the like).
FANZING Before we go on, you recently posted an announcement in the newsgroups that fans of CHASE should not read the summary for CHASE #6 in the recent DIAMOND PREVIEWS. Why not?
D.C. Johnson They pretty much explicitly give away everything about the revelations in the issue that are supposed to be the big deal we're building up to over the first five issues. I talked to some DC marketing people about it and it's annoying and all, yes, and I'm kinda ticked, yes, but it's not that big a deal, and I think I understand how it happened. More importantly, I think (I hope) I can avoid it in the future.
FANZING How about telling our readers something of your experience. What other titles have you worked on before?
D.C. Johnson CHASE is my first project-- first professional writing job of any sort, actually. Prior to pitching CHASE to DC, I'd submitted a proposal for a SENTINEL monthly series but it didn't go through. So at the moment, CHASE is pretty much it.
FANZING Was it hard to sell DC on a title where the main character is a woman (a non-costumed one at that)?
D.C. Johnson Not at all. I don't think anyone at DC-- the editors, the writers, etc.-- have anything against female protagonists, and I think everyone knows there should be more female characters in comics. The non-costumed aspect was harder to sell than the fact that she's female. After JH and I had convinced the first couple of people to give it a try, it started to catch on. Now you'd be hard-pressed, I think, to find anyone who would feel the book works better any other way.
FANZING In Chase #2, Cameron Chase says, "You don't know what the laws are like for people with talent. I won't LIVE like that." It's never been indicated that there are laws prohibiting or restraining metahuman activity in the DC Universe. Are you introducing new aspects to the mythology of the DCU?
D.C. Johnson One of the major points of the book-- and one of its strongest appeals, I think-- is the "real world" point of view of this fantastic universe where aliens attack every summer and people are routinely killed and brought back and split into two people, etc. In the world that you and I live in, we have federal laws regulating what percentage of fat can be allowed in beef that's stamped as being "lean". My God, what kinds of laws must they have in a world with *real* problems?

JH and I really want to play with that-- personal freedoms and rights, the legal system, commercial exploitation, celebrities… they're all different in the DCU. They'd have to be. We'll see how much of it makes it onto paper; we've got lots of weird and nasty and funny and tragic ideas.

FANZING About CHASE #3: I think that the Rocket Reds needed a little more explanation as to how they've been taken over by the Russian mafia. (I know it's a country in transition, but I can't see the US Navy Seals becoming an arm of the Frattiano gang in our country!)
D.C. Johnson The important difference is that in Russia right now pretty much the entire KGB has become the Mob. They never really had a "Mob" in sense of Sicilian crimelords during the Soviet regime, they just had a ubiquitous black market. The collapse of the Soviet Bloc basically left the KGB free to do whatever the hell they wanted, and in large parts of the Russian Republic what they've chosen to do is continue to use terror and espionage to control goods and services-- effectively becoming a new world flavor of the Family, the Tong, the Triad, etc. So it seemed like a natural state of events to me that the KGB-gone-Mob would seize as much Rocket Red technology as they could and use it as a tool like everything else. But because they no longer have the big-time government support that the Soviet Bloc provided, it's not as good as the classic suits-- stripped down to the basics.

I hope to eventually get back to Russia, and the long-term effects of what happened in #3. When I do, hopefully, I can take some space to show what I think Dmitri's up to these days, and see how he feels about the misuse of RR technology that is being committed.

FANZING So far, we've seen the Suicide Squad, the Rocket Reds, the Construct and a cameo by the JLA (and that was just in issues #2 and #3). Issue #4 featured the Teen Titans, Booster Gold and the long-neglected Firehawk. What characters will we see in the future, if you're permitted to give any hints?
D.C. Johnson Well, we've got Klarion the Witch-Boy in #5. There's a rematch with Batman in #7 and #8. Mmmmm. Hal Jordan-- both of 'em, actually. Heh heh heh. Beyond that, too early to say for sure.
FANZING The series is wonderfully atmospheric, thanks to artist J.H. Williams III. How did you come to work with him [if J.H. is a man; dang all these initials!]?
D.C. Johnson Yeah, the J = Jim. Jimbo and I go way back, well before either of us worked in comics. We have a long history of projects we want to get published and we figured the best way to get those projects done was to establish ourselves as a team. Expect to see lots more things from us down the road--mostly non-superhero stuff.
FANZING You seem to have a lot of respect for the little elements of the DCU, such as mentioning Dmitri (the Rocket Red of the JLE) or bringing back the Construct, who hasn't been seen since JLA #10 a decade ago. One would suspect that you have quite a DC collection. What titles would we find in your collection of back issues?
D.C. Johnson Heh. Actually, I only really got back into comics around '88, and when I was younger most of my comics were Marvel. But in the ten years I've really been back into comics, it's been mostly DC stuff, and I've done lots of catching up. My friend Jeff, actually, is my best source of reference material. I'm always borrowing a long box or two from him so I can reread FURY OF FIRESTORM or BOOSTER GOLD or the Barry Allen FLASH trial. The other two things that keep me on track are my huge stack of WHO'S WHO IN THE DC UNIVERSE-- I have just about every issue of every release of that thing, and I am constantly reading and re-reading it-- and our editor, Eddie Berganza. Eddie really digs having old characters brought out of the attic and dusted off, and he wants 'em to shine just as much as I do. So he's very quick to point out places where I've strayed in handling characters, or where it's really spot on, and he sends me lots of reference material as well so I can see what characters have been up to lately.
FANZING And, of course, the question we always ask: how did you break into comics?
D.C. Johnson The super-short answer: I knew an artist who was really, really good and we wanted to work together. To anyone who wants to break into writing comics, I hate to say it but hooking up with an artist is really probably your best bet. It's an innately visual medium; artists are where the attention goes because it's what everyone sees first. This is not a bad thing, it's just something you need to work with. If an editor has only ten minutes to look at an unsolicited proposal, he or she can get a lot more accomplished in that ten minutes looking at a drawn story fragment than a twenty-page typed plot outline. I've never seen an editor review an artist's portfolio that had story art without asking at some point, "Did you write this?" Hook up with an artist-- someone you can really work with, that you'd be willing to put in a long haul with-- and jointly assemble a portfolio of writing and art that you can both push, together and separately.

Way back at the 1990 San Diego Convention, Jimbo and I were going around to all the publishers and he was showing his portfolio. It had some pencil and ink work (and Batman vs Punisher piece, as I recall) and some painted work (much of which was erotic in nature). It got enthusiastic responses from lots of places-- but the people who liked the painted work wanted to see it done sequentially, and the people who liked the line art wanted to see it with the erotic content, and basically everyone liked some of it but not all of it.

So hanging around the hotel room in the evening, Jimbo and I toyed around with the idea of the Perfect Portfolio Sample, something that would have put all those things together-- an erotic, all-painted sequential project of some kind. What we came up with was an erotic science-fiction thriller that will someday go ahead as a real project; it never made it off the ground as an actual portfolio piece because Jimbo started getting real work and it wasn't really needed, but in working this thing over it became clear that we generated ideas and stories really well together. Pretty much any time you put me 'n Jimbo in a room together for a couple of hours, something insanely wild comes out of it and it goes into a notebook and waits for its chance to see daylight.

So when DC approached Jimbo about two years ago to ask if he wanted to work on a monthly for them-- they were considering doing a SENTINEL series at the time-- he asked if they'd look at proposals from new writers. Sure, they said, and I banged together a series pitch. It didn't go through, but they liked it enough that they asked us to develop something new. That ended up being CHASE.

In a lot of ways, CHASE was supposed to just be this quick pitch we threw together to get us a job working together, but she's really grown on us. I hope she breaks through into some kind of long-term survival; we've enjoyed working on the series more than I think either of us expected.

FANZING At this point in the interview, I was intrigued that Dan had gotten a job with one of the big two companies without years of working in independents. So, it isn't impossible! I asked Dan if he'd done this through submitting springboards similar to my Elongated Man proposal in Fanzing #4.
D.C. Johnson Hm, well, the proposal for CHASE wasn't entirely unsolicited (Eddie asked us to come up with something) so I had a bit more room to work in. The first draft of CHASE's pitch was about six pages, and it was 1.5-spaced as I recall. A fair bit of text.

I think it's actually safe to exceed that limitation, if you have the right sort of info in your two or three or whatever pages. I can tell you from my limited (two proposals so far) experience that what they'll want to see in a pitch are:

- Some sort of high-level summary. A paragraph.
- Character descriptions for the protagonist(s) and supporting cast, maybe two or three sentences apiece at most.
- Rough story breakdowns for the first twelve issues of your proposed run (or all the issues if it's a limited series). I think this is the area that trips most people up. I've been talking to [someone] on the newsgroup about some ideas he wants to pitch, and one of the things he came to realize as we talked was that he had some ideas for a story here, a story there, but he hadn't really put a lot of thought into what order the stories were going to go in or even how many issues the story ideas would expand into. Since writing a comic is a monthly deadline job, the editors want to know that you can think ahead of yourself, and establishing a strong one-year plan is the first step in establishing that trust. They'll back you for that first year, but goddammit, you better be able to deliver. I think a lot of unsolicited series proposals come in with a sort of fluffy "Here's what we'll do in #1 and #2 and then sometime we'll do a story about the grandma and there could be some old Flash villains showing up and, I dunno, whatever you guys want to do." Wham, instant editor turnoff.
- Some sort of brief post-year-one plan as well.

I should talk to Marc Campbell [Fanzing's previous editor, currently the webmaster at DC Comics] or someone about the legality of HTMLizing some of the early CHASE material and putting it on my web site. The changes that CHASE went through from start to approval are pretty interesting, and I think very typical of what a new book from a new creative team is going to go through. Hm. I'll check into that.

Dan Curtis Johnson, "Crisper Than Thou "