DARKSEID RULES: In-Depth with Paul Dini and "Countdown"

Tue, May 22nd, 2007 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Andy Khouri, Editor

The "Countdown" has begun, and fans of DC Comics' crossover epics have an entertaining and loooong year ahead of them. As detailed in our weekly T-MINUS feature, "Countdown" still has readers guessing, with a story that in just two issues has seen the debut of a rogue Monitor, the return of Jack Kirby's New Gods to the mainstream DCU, and the appearances and deaths of characters from previous or alternate versions of DC's continuity. "

52" proved to be more than anyone - even the writers-- ever dreamed, and with that in mind, CBR News hooked up with head writer Paul Dini and hit him with every "Countdown" question we could think of in this uniquely candid and in-depth discussion of the new weekly series, its cast, its creators, and what it could mean for the DC Universe of the future.

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"Countdown" #51
"Identity Crisis" was kind of a beginning of the end, end of the beginning type of event for the DCU. "Countdown to Infinite Crisis" painted a picture of the DCU in the aftermath of "Identity Crisis," setting the stage for "Infinite Crisis," which played out dramatically the hard consequences of those earlier events. Then "52" came along and gave readers their first real look at the new DCU in the aftermath of "Infinite Crisis," and followed up on much of that series' implications. Along those lines, the question now is, "What is 'Countdown?'"

Well, the simple answer is "Countdown" is basically the spine of the DC Universe for the next year. There are a series of events set in motion, as you've seen in the first two issues, that will spark a chain of events that will snowball into a huge event happening next year. This is the countdown to that big event. And what that event is I can't be more specific, but basically we start out small with a story that appears to be happening at the peripheral edges of the DC Universe, and, kind of like a ripple moving backwards it all comes to one key flash point.

As a follow-up to that, and I realize you can't discuss this next event yet, but obviously you guys have a pretty good idea of what that next "thing" is - is it a solid idea, or still pretty fluid at this point in time?

It's pretty solid. "Countdown" we will be working toward that ultimate revelation, but at the same time we're telling stories about key players in the DC Universe that while they may not have their own books, have compelling stories themselves and these stories all intersect and collide with the final event that will take place at the end of "Countdown."

"52" spotlighted characters who were generally considered second strings and in some cases wholly cult characters. Because that series was so successful, most of those heroes have been elevated in the DCU in a very dramatic way. In this regard, what can readers expect from "Countdown?" Who would you like to see elevated to star status as a result of your efforts here?

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Flash villains Trickster and the Pied Piper struggle for acceptance among the Rogues

I think what we did was we cast a lot of characters based on their personalities and where we could take those personality traits and how well those personalities meshed with others or to what degree they were in conflict with each other. In fact, conflict works out better for us because it takes us into better story territory. What we wanted to do was come up with some interesting choices for characters to blend into "Countdown" and see the story through their eyes. I can say there are generally more heroic characters taking a part in "Countdown" than in "52," and I also think the characters have more of a long-standing mainstream appeal. We have characters who are out and out villains like the Flash's Rogues, the Trickster and Pied Piper, who suddenly find themselves almost as men without a country - the rogues no longer trust them and neither do the heroes. They become keepers of some valuable information and they find themselves in desperate need of allies, but nobody will listen to them now. They're basically on the run and they don't even want to talk to themselves. That makes them interesting, compelling, kind of funny and kind of tragic characters.

Then we have characters who may be a cut above an actual villain, or just slightly below that depending on how you look at them. The character I'm specifically talking about is Jason Todd, who has come back to life in the DCU over the last three years and has gone from being an out and out villain to being an anti-hero. A lot of "Countdown" is going to follow him and his eventual - I don't know how to put this - a lot of the story will follow him on a path of self-discovery and metamorphosis. I can't say if that metamorphosis will be for totally good or evil, however I find that his is the most compelling story. He ultimately has the most at stake on a personal level.

Jason Todd: Villain? Hero? Anti-hero?
Jason Todd has not exactly been embraced warmly by all sectors since his return. He's been kind of all over the place and is kind of the butt of jokes at times. People aren't quite sure what to make of him, which happens with a lot of characters who come back from the dead under dubious circumstances. Is one of your goals with "Countdown" to reestablish Jason with a background that readers might react to favorably? Like, "Okay, now I can take this character seriously again."

Yes, definitely. With Jason, when I was told they wanted him to be a key part of the team I though, "Well, where do we go with him?" I had been reading a lot of the stuff he appeared in and I was thinking I wasn't that fond of the character as is and basically he just seemed to be this sour, brooding bad ass or screwed up guy mentally with a lot of problems who just as easily could be a killer than he could a hero. Then I started working with the framework of where "Countdown" is going and where we're taking some of the characters and I saw a chance for him to be something more than what he is. I think that direction is going to take some people by surprise. You know, sitting here thinking about Jason, he's become a very compelling character and ultimately a character that a lot of people are going to be very interested in.

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Ray Palmer: hero of the Nanoverse
"Countdown" stars Jimmy Olsen, Ray Palmer, the Trickster, Piper and Mary Marvel. Why these characters and what do they bring to your story?

Well, with Ray Palmer, we bring a reason for a question. He disappeared under mysterious circumstances at the end of "Identity Crisis." He was grief stricken over what Jean Loring had done, he was heart sick, he wanted to get away from it all, so he embarked on a journey down to what we now call the Nanoverse. When it's revealed that he has key knowledge of the great disaster that has been hinted at in the first issue, he suddenly becomes a character that must be questioned about what he knows about this great disaster and what, if anything, can be done to prevent it. So he becomes the reason why a group of characters have joined together in search of him. They figure if they can find Palmer, they can find the key to the great disaster and find a way to prevent it.

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Mary Marvel: Screwed
Mary Marvel brings in the magic aspect of the DC Universe. We've come out of "52" with the character Black Adam who has tremendous power and we've seen the abuses of that power and how that power destroyed him. Now we have Mary Marvel stepping out of the Marvel family as someone who has lost her powers and desperately craves a way to get them back and never really envisioned her life without those powers. She always planned on being hero and now that she's been stripped of those abilities, she's looking for some way, any way, to reclaim those. She's given a second chance, but ultimately she finds out that having absolute power corrupts absolutely. Her journey is to find some mitigating factor that will allow her to develop her powers without going completely into darkness. So, she seeks out a string of mentors to help her, but at the same time she feels herself drawn deeper and deeper under a shadow and under the temptation to use those powers without restraint, which will end up alienating her from a great portion of the DC Universe.

"Countdown" features four scripters and four art teams ...

Five, actually, since two are doubled up as a writer team.

"Countdown" #50
Ah ha, that's right. Now, could "Countdown" be characterized as four monthly books all under the banner headline "Countdown." Is that really accurate? Will each team be handling their own piece of the story, or is it less that and more a collaborative, everybody works on everything experience?

You know, we're all working on every story together. We do have these six of seven major characters or major story beats running through each month. Not every story beat will be in every issue - a few of them will be - but occasionally we find ourselves saying, "You know what? We left Jimmy on a cliff-hanger, so we can take an issue off and let's concentrate on the Karate Kid or Mary Marvel or Holly Robinson," all of whom are key players in "Countdown." With Holly we get an entry into the Amazon's world. With Karate Kid we get a little bit more of the riddle of the great disaster and we have a connection to the Legion of Super-Heroes.

What can you tell us about your collaborators? How did you come together and how do you work together on a project with such a unique structure?

The Karate Kid, a visitor from another continuity's future
Dan Didio was the ultimate web-weaver, I guess you would say, in that he cast us all in various roles in "Countdown." He had ideas in mind for writers or writer teams he'd like to bring into the mix the same way he had ideas for artists. He came to me with the intent of taking what was, at that time, the skeleton ideas for "Countdown" and giving them to me and getting us all into a discussion of where we could go with these storylines. Once I heard what he had planned, that started my imagination working and got me thinking it would be fun to bring in this element or something here for silver age fans, stuff like that. I also brought into the mix an element that worked very well for us when I worked on the animated series based on the DCU characters which was I was kind of reinventing things not exactly from ground up, but from elements that fans had loved over the years and finding a new way to make them work. So, you're not going to find every bit of current continuity represented in "Countdown." That's not to deny it, but as we did with the animated series, we took what we felt was the most vital to the ongoing strength of the DC Universe and its concepts and characters and crafted our series based on that.

I'm doing the same thing on "Countdown." I'm distilling a few things, changing a few things, just going with emotions and takes on established characters that I think are the strongest and weaving them out of that. That said, we still do have ongoing continuity and there are many events spinning out of "Countdown" and you have to be respectful of all of them, so trying to make everything mesh is the big trick here.

"Countdown" #47
Indeed. And these guys you're working with were all hand picked by Dan Didio, right?

He ran them by me and in every case I was a big fan of their work. Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti I love. I think their writing is terrific. I read "Jonah Hex" every month and virtually every book they're doing. Adam Beechen I've loved since his work on the DC animated series and also he was doing the "Justice League Unlimited" book for a while. He's got a great love for these characters. Tony Bedard and Sean McKeever, they're all wonderful and I can't say enough about them. When the scripts come in, they all read great. We sit down and go over them and look and see where can it be punched up a bit, where can we add some more action or surprises and even a few things that catch us by surprise.

Keith Giffen was called "the glue" when it came to "52." I know he's got some work coming up on "Countdown." What is Giffen's exact role on this project?

Keith is great at finding the dynamics in a scene and passing that on to artists and freeing up our minds where we might take up extra time in a scene between characters with say lots of exposition, Keith cuts right to the chase. So, often he'll script and start blocking it out in rough form and play up the dynamics of what's going on and cut out a lot of the fat. Really giving each issue more of a sense of visual urgency, which you need on a book like this.

One of the things we looked at in terms of a style of writing was borrowing from shows like "Lost" or "Heroes" where in each act of those shows you get check in moments with each of your heroes or groups of heroes. There will be action and character drama and physical business that will keep each of those acts going toward the hour-long conclusion, but you just don't want characters sitting around talking. So those times where we have worked up, I guess you could call them soap opera beats, perhaps a moment between Jimmy and Clark or characters having to explain something or a discussion of a certain character's powers, Keith is great at cutting that down, keeping the intent and quite a lot of the dialogue, but just setting it on its feet.

It sounds as though he's like a check and balance system for you guys.

Yeah.

"Countdown" #36
You brought up "Lost." You were of course the story editor on "Lost's" first season. Would you compare the role you filled on "Lost" to your role here on "Countdown?" Are they similar?

They're very similar, but with "Countdown" it's more hands on. As story editor on "Lost," you had a couple of Executive Producers who did quite a lot of work coming up with the basic storyline and would write big chunks of the scripts themselves, but at certain times they would hand out chunks of various episodes to the staff writers or to myself to write or give them a draft of. Everybody was kind of working on everybody else's draft, which is sort of the way that prime time --in that situation--works. I would be consulted occasionally for more bizarre ideas or they'd come to me when things would get a little talky. Basically everybody jammed on it together, but more often than not I would come in with a weird idea that would lead to some strange visual or island mythology.

With "Countdown," I wrote the original storyline for what was going to happen and how the stories would weave together. Even though we have a definite beginning, middle and end with it, much like these hour long episodic shows, we try to keep the individual elements going into it fairly fluid. So that way if we realize we need to play up the action more or need to focus on another conflict, we can bring that in and give certain story elements more room to breathe or throw more action in there. It's kind of like growing a plant--you know what it's going to come out looking like, but you have to tend it all the time and make sure it grows the way you want to.

It sounds like as much as was learned through the process of creating "52," the production process on "Countdown" is still fairly organic with room for innovation.

Yes.

The DC Universe 2007
How much of "Countdown" do you anticipate scripting yourself?

Right now we have a really good rhythm going with the scripts coming in and I don't really want to monkey with that all that much. I think when all is said and done I'll have written maybe five issues, if that. I'd rather be running the show and working with the other writers and supplying the plots for each week than actually getting involved in the scripting. That said, I'm writing the next issue going into production and I'll be working very closely with Keith on that.

What issue would that be?

That will be issue #25 or #26. We're just at the mid point.

Whoa! You guys are way ahead.

Yeah. Because we kept on a fairly rigid schedule early on, sometimes doing two or three scripts a week, we now have the luxury of going back and seeing where we're the strongest and where we're getting the most action and the most intensity out of our story and we have the freedom to change things if we feel like playing something up or cutting something if we feel it's gone on too long.

What would Mary Marvel do?
You've got "Madame Mirage" at Top Cow and "Countdown" at DC. Do you have room for anything else in your life right now?

Well, there's my wife!

I suppose there is her.

Yeah!

She's a magician. You'd have hell to pay if you didn't pay some attention to her.

Oh yeah, sometimes it'll get late and she'll say, "Hey, turn the computer off!"

With twenty-five or so issues completed so far, how many times has she had to say that?

Twenty-five times, roughly.

Darkseid returns in "Countdown"
We're very excited about the inclusion of Darkseid and the Fourth World characters in "Countdown," as we were convinced their conspicuous absence during "Infinite Crisis" was meaningful. Will we be vindicated with "Countdown?"

Oh, yes.

Can you give us some indication as to how?

I would say, well, Darkseid always has a plan. He's always working an angle and he's also got his own team of people who exist to serve him and also work their own angles, too. As much as Darkseid is Lord of Apokolips, look at who he's placed his trust in. That is not a very trustworthy lot. Even with his most "trusted" people, they're always looking for angles themselves. I think you'll see a lot of the machinations of Darkseid at work in "Countdown" as well as perhaps the workings of some of his underlings.

Darkseid must be a challenging character to write. He's truly otherworldly, infinitely powerful and unlike any other character in the DCU. Do you have certain goals with Darkseid for this series? I suppose the traditional question is "How do you make someone like Darkseid relatable to readers?" But I don't think that's the right question here, because I think Darkseid is meant to be impossible to "relate" to.

I related to Darkseid!

Okay. How do you relate to Darkseid?

Darkseid puts the "God" in "New Gods"
I think he's cool! I look at him as like the head of a mob family. He's the ultimate cosmic godfather, basically, and he's somebody who is a being of tremendous power, intellect and cruelty, but I think his true power, despite all the physical thinks he can do, is in his brain. He's a character who has convinced himself first and foremost that the universe is corrupt and nobody is more corrupt more than he and that everyone can be bought or seduced or controlled. I think because he is so set in his ways believing that, it's ultimately the key and perhaps the only key to his undoing.

The character is hard to write, yes, but for me he's also a lot of fun to write. He's a challenge to write. I don't know that personally I'll ever get what Kirby was striving for with Darkseid, I don't know that anybody can, because I think that the Fourth World characters were such a personal and eternally ongoing saga, not only in the books but in Kirby's mind as we put them to paper, I think the best you can do with those characters is try and look at what Jack was trying to go for as a whole and take what's best about them and try and craft a version of the characters form that. I think the ultimate Fourth World saga was something Jack had just begun to envision and I think that it even might have spiraled a bit beyond his control, but I think what he's left us with some of the more vibrant characters of that universe are tremendously entertaining, tremendously compelling and a lot of fun to write.

I don't know that I will truly ever have a handle on him, but I think the closest we came is in the animated series where we actually had Superman and Darkseid fighting head to head. Superman perceives Darkseid only as a bad guy, a guy who has enslaved his world and a tyrant who must be deposed. What worked for me then is when he took Darkseid's beaten body, threw him in the street and basically said to the people of Apokolips, you're free, and they just looked at him and helped put Darkseid back on his thrown. That's because his level of power is so absolute, especially to those people, that the devil you know is better than the one you don't. I think that is what is real power. He puts the God in New Gods. There's just no fighting that kind of power.

Granny Goodness: Bad
Will there be an explanation in "Countdown" for the New Gods' activities in "Seven Soldiers" and how that metaseries relates to their post-"Seven Soldiers" appearances in the DCU?

I think it may touch on that tangentially, but basically we're going in a different direction with the New Gods. You will see Scott Free and you will see some of the other characters showing up in "Countdown," but the interpretation of some of those characters in "Sevel Soldiers" is pretty much the "Seven Soldiers" version or "universe," if you will, and when we deal with a character who had a prominent role in that series, it's going to be more along the lines of what we've already seen established in the DCU.

There are numerous other characters who've been conspicuous by their absence in recent times. There's the aforementioned Darkseid, Ray Palmer and Scott Free. There's also Wally West.

Scott Free will show up. There are events that are going to happen concurrently with "Countdown" that will involve him and he'll have a crossover role within "Countdown." Wally West, it's sort of hard to say at the moment, but yes, he'll be showing up as well. Other characters, well, the door is wide open for a lot of cross over within the DC Universe to interact with the seven or eight stars who appear on a weekly basis in "Countdown."

Jimmy Olsen: Really screwed
Alright, it's time to get real . All kinds of weird things have been happening around the DCU these days, and mostly in some of the most inconspicuous and under-the-radar books in the line. We've seen the Bleed from WildStorm's "The Authority" show up in "Ion." The Tangent universe Green Lantern appeared in "Ion." Captain Atom appeared wearing Monarch's armor from "Armageddon 2001!" That weapon or mechanical item from the "Countdown" teaser has appeared in "Hawkgirl." Darkseid absconded with Professor Stein in the final issue of "Firestorm." Apparently, part of the Anti-Life Equation resides within Firestorm, with the remaining pieces inside Swamp Thing, Red Tornado and Naiad of all people. Additionally, all sorts of curious things have been going on in "Manhunter," with Kate Spencer being revealed to be more of a legacy hero than previously believed. She's the granddaughter of Iron Munroe and the original Phantom Lady! Which makes her Jack Knight's cousin!

Can you speak to any of these events, and will they be addressed in "Countdown?"

I think you'll see elements of them coming in and out of "Countdown," but as to those specific events being wrapped up within "Countdown," I don't see that happening right now. There are events that will wrap up and will be "Countdown"-only events, but when we will deal with a cross-over capacity with the other books, what's happening in those books will play into what's happening in "Countdown," but I think the ultimate finales for those stories will play out in those respective books.

Look to the skies
You've had two issues out as of today. What kind of feedback have you received so far?

It's been all over the place and I'm trying to take it all with a grain of salt and gleaning what I can from it. The response has been so far very positive because I think a lot of people just like weekly comics. A lot of people are intrigued by what's going on. It's kind of a radical switch to go from the energy of "52" into "Countdown." I think a lot of people expected it to be more of an extension of that story, but it really is its own animal. The covers look similar because we have the big numbers up there, but it's really not a "52" sequel. It's the next event. People are not falling in with the rhythm. You'll always have people who'll hate it just because they do or they hate everything, but I've heard from a lot of people who've really loved it. I did a signing in New York a couple of weeks back and people who had read it were just floored and a lot of them realized that in that first issue, yeah, we started out kind of slow, but that's just the prologue and the actual story starts with issue #50 and from here on in things are just going to build and get faster and faster. I prefer starting out that way rather than having a huge explosion that will leave everyone kind of scratching their head and wondering what's going on. There's a great jumping on point and it shows the story really is itself. That said, I think readers are going to have to look back those first two issues, particularly issue #51, pull those out from time to time because virtually everything that happens in there is important and will be played out in later issues.

Obviously, you're well known for your television work, and there will be all sorts of comparisons between television and "Countdown." In discussions of TV shows, specifically new ones, there's some talk of when the show - the writing staff and actors - really begin to "gel." Along those lines, when do you think "Countdown" came together for you?

I think it's been pretty cohesive right from the start. I think there's such a nice mix of talents on the artistic and writing end and such a great collection of characters that early on the characters really came alive for me. I think if people stick with us through the first four issues and get a sense of how we're starting, how we're ramping up, who the players are and how we're going to progress, I think they'll be with us for the duration.

CBR Executive Producer Jonah Weiland contributed to this interview.

Paul Dini can be found on the web at MySpace and LiveJournal.

Now discuss this story in CBR's DC Universe forum.

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