It's hard to imagine things in the comic book world more frightening than the Joker or Doomsday, but launching a new superhero series would definitely be one them. Today's comic book market is not particularly forgiving to new series, and it isn't often that a new comic book basks in the warmth of steady sales for an extended period of time. But with the January 2003 release of DC Comics' "H-E-R-O," writer Will Pfeifer (that's pronounced PIE-FUR) hopes to buck the trend and begin a long-running superhero comic book with a modern twist on a classic idea.
"The concept of 'H-E-R-O' is that it's a reworking of DC's 'Dial H for Hero' series," Pfeifer says of the series premise. "In that comic book, there were these magical dials where you would dial 'H,' 'E,' 'R' & 'O'. Each time you did this, you would become a different superhero with different powers and different costumes, with a different look and different names -- everything. Then you would spell 'O,' 'R,' 'E,' 'H,' and go back to normal. In the old book -- and they've done this series a few times -- only one person had the dial. This time, in each story arc we'll have the hero dial (well, we're not really calling it a 'dial' because we've updated it) will end up in the hands of someone different -- man, woman, young, old -- and they'll get to experience having super powers. Each will deal with it differently - some will use it wisely, some people won't, some people will screw up, some will use it for good, some for evil - and it will vary with each story arc in the series."
Something else that will vary with each story arc is the cast, as Pfeifer plans to turn his back on convention and write the series without any kind of main cast of characters.
"At this point -- I've written the first four issues and I'm working on the fifth - 'H-E-R-O' focuses on a guy named Jerry Feldon who's living in an industrial town, working a dead end job, living a bleak life -- and he gets the dial. The first four issues focus on how he gets the dial, how it changes his life for better and worse, and how he goes on after he no longer has the dial. The next issue will be completely unrelated to that and be about a guy named Matt Allen, who's different than Jerry. He's a successful executive, a go-getter kind of guy with a wife and a kid, and how he uses the dial will be different from how Jerry uses the dial. Each story arc will focus on a new character who gets the dial and go on from there. There isn't really a central cast, although there will be a backstory and connecting thread to the series that will involve some of the character from previous incarnations of 'Dial H for Hero.' None of them have been introduced yet, and I'm not sure when they'll be introduced.
"There definitely will be a strong link to the old series, in that it sort of is the old dial and within the continuity of the comic, it is the same object. People who had the dial previously will be pursuing the object and want to get it back," continues Pfeifer. "One of the characters will want it sort of to save the world, and the other person wants it to rule the world, so that's how it ties back to the old series.
"The genesis of the series, actually, came from Mike McAvennie who was an editor for DC Comics until just recently. I was talking to him at the Wizard World convention in Chicago last year about having done some work on DC's 'Secret Files,' and he had the idea to bring back 'Dial H for Hero' because there were certain comics DC wanted to revive. He told me to come up with a pitch for 'Dial H,' and I did, then we revised it and revised it, and 'H-E-R-O' is what we ended it up with.
"A lot of people have been calling it 'Dial H for Hero' meets '100 Bullets,' because in '100 Bullets' there's the continuing thread with different people involved and with 'H-E-R-O' will also involve different people in each arc. Plus, it'll have a darker look, with a darker feel (especially in the first story arc) than other superhero comics. We'd tried to give it a feeling between an independent/Vertigo book and a superhero comic. It's not your typical slam bang book."
Making a superhero book stand out from the rest is probably the greatest challenge facing Pfeifer, but the writer believes that with "H-E-R-O," he and artist Kano are bringing something truly unique to the comic book market.
"I think readers should take a chance on this one, because we are really trying to do something different with it. You read 'Superman,' or 'Batman' or 'Green Lantern' and they're fine books, but they're about people who've had their powers for years and know what they're doing. Sure, they screw up every now and then, but in 'H-E-R-O' we're trying to keep it diverse. We're going to focus on average people who get these incredible powers -- and what do they do with them? If I suddenly got super powers, would I know what to do? Would I know how to use them? Would I screw up?
"There's a scene in the first issue of 'H-E-R-O' where Jerry finds that he can fly, he's super-strong, he's fast and he has great vision, so he tries to stop a speeding car by standing right in front of it. He never stops to think that maybe he doesn't have invulnerability, and the car knocks him through a fence. He doesn't know what he's doing, and a lot of 'H-E-R-O' will be people adjusting, learning and changing themselves to fit the super powers."
If, by this point you're wondering exactly who Will Pfeifer is and wondering if you've missed out on his work in the past, don't worry, the scribe is more than happy to bring you up to speed on his career.
"Well my first credited comic work was the miniseries 'Finals,' with Jill Thompson, which came out in 1999," explains Pfeifer. "That was a series that we'd been working for a long time. She lived in Chicago and I live in Rockford, which is about 90 minutes away, so we were always bouncing back ideas. Before that, when I went to Kent State in Ohio, Jill lived with a good friend of mine in the city of Kent. She wasn't a student, though, so we sorta saw both sides of college, and we always thought there was a great series to be done there about college, and no one was doing it. So, we came up with the idea, and we pitched it to Vertigo. It seemingly took forever - actually, it took a couple of years - and it was released from July through October of 1999. A lot of people seemed to like it - I mean, it sold OK, but it obviously didn't sell so well that Vertigo was dying for a sequel. But the people who read it really seemed to like it, and I really had a fun time working on it with Jill. I also know that some people at Marvel and DC noticed it, because I did a story with Jill for 'Bizarro Comics' that was a spoof on Green Lantern that was in there, then Marvel contacted her about doing an 'X-Men Unlimited' story, and she said she'd do one if I wrote it, so I came up with this 'Behind the Music' type story of Dazzler, which was a lot of fun to write, and once again Jill just did a wonderful job on the art. People at Marvel seemed to like that, so I wrote a couple more 'X-Men Unlimited' stories without Jill and then through 'Bizarro' I did a text feature for a 'Justice Society Secret Files,' and that's when I talked to Mike McAvennie and Ivan Cohen about doing a 'Secret Files' based on 'Our Worlds at War'. The problem was that they needed it right away, so they sent me this huge stack of books (because I hadn't been reading the series) and they said, 'Come up with a story that explains this in 20 pages, and we need it yesterday.' And I think the idea for 'H-E-R-O' was floating around then, so I knew this was almost an audition. If I could pull this off, I was that much more likely to be able to get them to risk a regular series on."
Even with Pfeifer being part of a new generation of writers, there's one thing that will seem familiar: He's one of those creators who developed a love for comics at an early age.
"I really like the mix of the visual and verbal. I've been reading comics since I was a little kid and in high school, I'd read the classics like Will Eisner's 'Spirit' and Frank Miller's 'Daredevil' or Claremont/Byrne's 'X-Men.' It was also around the same time that Alan Moore began doing 'Swamp Thing' and I kept stumbling onto these really good comics just as they were just taking off, so I was really inspired. I made a lot of mini-comics in college, where I'd write/draw them, then sell them at conventions, which was fun. I like breaking the story into units, either pages or panels, making the rhythm of the story work and surprising the reader. In comics, you can tell any kind of story as long as the artist can tell it, because there's no budget. It's a really freeing experience to know you can tell anything -- as long as you can put it across visually and verbally."
Telling "anything" he wants is something Pfeifer intends to do, and he wants to assure fans that while he himself does compare "H-E-R-O" to the critically acclaimed mature-readers series "100 Bullets," the books will be very distinct entities.
"I've actually tried not to compare the series like that, but it's just such an easy way to explain 'H-E-R-O'. When I compare 'H-E-R-O' to '100 Bullets,' what I'm basically saying is that there is a continuing thread that is the Hero Device, but each arc is all different characters. It's not going to be as dark as '100 Bullets' and certainly not as adult. I know Brian Azzarello -- he's Jill Thompson's husband, and I see him every year at the Chicago Comic-Con. I was talking to him this summer, and I was almost embarrassed to bring up 'H-E-R-O' and say 'y'know, they're calling it 'Dial H' meets '100 Bullets'' and he kinda chuckled. It's not really '100 Bullets,' which is a great book in its own right mind you. This is just something a little different because 'H-E-R-O' is more superhero-y. It's not as dark and as gritty. You have so little time to grab people's attention, and you want a real snappy way to describe something. It comes down to the fact that the easiest way to describe 'H-E-R-O' is 'Dial H For Hero' meets '100 Bullets.' The only reason I consider it like '100 Bullets' is because it's separate stories told together. Personally, I'm just glad DC's excited about 'H-E-R-O,' and whatever they wanna call it is ok with me."
Pfeifer says that the main theme of the book will be one that resonates deep within him and represents the struggle any "real" superhero would face.
"We started working on this book last summer, so it was before the terrorist attacks, but what makes a hero will be the central theme of this book and it goes back to -- and it's a Marvel Comics quote but a good one -- 'with great power comes great responsibility.' We all like to think we'd do good if we had tremendous powers -- and some of us would, but some of us wouldn't, and some of us couldn't -- we wouldn't quite know what we're doing. I've tried to examine average people and tried very hard in the first arc to make Jerry an average guy, even basing his job on one I had, because I wanted to get the details right. I wanted to show the effect of putting a normal guy in a universe with super powers, super villains, space ships and all that, seeing how he reacts. I think it's a really interesting theme to explore. A lot of times comics get so cosmic that we lose the human touch."
That last statement of Pfeifer's raises a big question: If it's true that stories in the superhero genre lend themselves to big, cosmic tales that lose their human grounding, why base a series on average people in the superhero genre? Pfeifer acknowledges that one could explore the concept of being a hero in many different genres, but he feels there is something about superheroes that made the project come together for him.
"I think in superhero comics you see the very nature of people who have powers, who fight evil and have secret identities. It's sort of the things we deal with in all our lives, but blown up more dramatically. Everyone has a side they don't show the public or only show their loved ones. Everyone wishes they were stronger, faster or smarter. Superhero comics -- where you can express these goals and where you can give people a chance to achieve these goals -- can really say something about the human condition. I'm sure you can say them other ways, but superhero comics allow me to do them in a way I think is fun. I want 'H-E-R-O' to be exciting. I want people to get a kick out of it, to cheer the hero. It's not all a dark, serious analysis of the human character."
A big part of the excitement in "H-E-R-O" will come from the plot thread that connects many of the otherwise unconnected stories. It's something that Pfeifer can't explain in too much detail right now, but he will give readers an idea of where that plot thread will take them.
"It's not like every single hero will be connected in the end, but the story of the device will build to, if not a conclusion, then a climax. The back story is that there are people out there who really want the dial. Most people who get the device have no idea what it is and kind of stumble on it, either losing it in the end or having it taken from them. But there are people actively looking for the device. There will be scenes of people searching the internet for rumors of superheroes being spotted in different areas, so they'll check it out, and eventually that story itself will come to a head. I don't really know what'll we'll do past that, because that may take a while, and we really haven't planned that out yet. Right now, I've got it planned out for about the first year, and I've got some ideas for past that."
So far it sounds like "H-E-R-O" is going pretty smoothly for Pfeifer. While the writer can't complain too much, he does admit that things aren't always easy.
"The hardest aspect of writing the series is, because the series is new, and because a person is new and any person can get a super power, it can be hard to decide what to do. I don't have one character to focus on. It's not like you're writing Superman, where you can say 'what will Clark do today?' It's a completely new story each time -- which is both fun and challenging. You have tto come up with something interesting that the readers can connect to, but is completely different than the last time. Once I sort of get into the story, into writing the detailed plot, it gets easier. Elements come up that I can't remember thinking of that fit perfectly. It's not that the story writes itself, but I get in the zone."
One element of the book that isn't a problem for Pfeifer is artist Kano, probably best known to fans for his work on DC's "Action Comics," and someone that the "H-E-R-O" writer believes will surprise people with the growth in his penciling.
"I liked Kano's stuff on 'Action,' but when I saw even his very first sketch of the characters for the very first arc of 'H-E-R-O,' I was stunned. He loosened up his style to give it a rougher look, which is exactly what we wanted for 'H-E-R-O' -- because in the beginning it's not superhero stuff, it's just people. Kano gives it that rough, loose look and it's all there- it's sort of cartoony, but I don't mean that negatively. He's great at the caricature of faces and it doesn't look to tight. It all just moves so well. Kano's eye for detail is just amazing too: I've seen some of these pages and he just packs in the detail, but it never gets lost, because you know where you're supposed to be looking. I've just been blown away by his stuff on 'H-E-R-O' and I think that even those people who weren't wild about him on 'Action' are really going to like him, and it's the perfect style for the book."
It's no secret that DC has been putting a lot of support behind "H-E-R-O," with a small teaser for the series in all their DCU comics right now and an eight-page preview in some of their comics in November.
"I think it's great- I'm excited that DC's excited about this series, because I think it's gonna be a lot of fun!" exclaims Pfeifer. "It's nice to know that the company has faith in the series, and I can't accuse them of not publicizing the book- it's all on my shoulders now. It does bring a little extra pressure I guess, but I don't mind. When I heard about the eight-page preview, I was very excited. It's a good idea because -- as effective as the teasers are -- when people get a chunk of the story that Kano and I are creating, then they'll see how it's different from other superhero books (and from '100 Bullets.')
"'H-E-R-O' is a lot of fun- I grew up reading superhero comics and I'm still reading superhero comics. It's just fun to be able to play in that arena, to write stories about people who can fly or people who throw lightning bolts around and run the speed of sound. It's just such an exciting thing to do. On the very first page of the very first issue of 'H-E-R-O,' we have Superman making a cameo, because I want people to know that this series takes place in the DCU and wanted to have 'THE' superhero. On a personal level, it was fun to write a page with Superman. SUPERMAN! That's just cool."
The connection between "H-E-R-O" and the DCU is one that Pfiefer will explore, but don't look for crossovers to occur immediately.
"It takes place in the DCU, and Superman plays a part in the first arc. He doesn't have any dialogue and barely appears, but his impact will be felt. Imagine if you or I lived in the DCU and happened to catch a glimpse of Superman. We'd remember it forever because he's just about the most famous guy on Earth. That's how he is in 'H-E-R-O'- He's this guy who was in town once and now everyone can't stop talking about. We haven't got it all planned out, but I plan to have some of the heroes run up against other supervillains who'll be much more powerful and much more experienced. I also told Mike that if DC does any big thing like 'Our Worlds At War' crossover, I do want 'H-E-R-O' to be part of that. I'm not a huge fan of those arcs, but it would be interesting to see an average guy thrown into something like that. I will probably live to regret that request, but I think there's a way to explore the human side of those crossovers."
If you're keeping an eye out for more work from Will Pfeifer in the near future, you'll find it in comic books - and in other media. Pfeifer lives in Rockford, Illinois, with his wife, Amy, and works at the local newspaper.
"'H-E-R-O' is obviously taking up most of my time, but I do have a full time job as well. I'm an assistant features editor for the Rockford Register Star and write a weekly video review column. We have a website at www.rrstar.com and I have a column that appears there every week along with other stories -- in fact, I just did an interview with Bob Newhart. I try to do entertainment and pop culture articles for the paper as often as I can. I also wrote an intro for a collection of short comic stories for P. Craig Russell that Dark Horse Comics is putting out. Craig needed someone who could put an intro out on a quick deadline. He lives in Kent, Ohio, so we became friends when I went to school there. It was fun to write and I think he's one of the best. In fact, I'm going to be doing a Hellboy short story with him for Dark Horse. I'm jazzed about that, because I've known Craig since college but never worked with him. Plus, I'm a huge Hellboy fan."
As Pfeifer begins to relax, he's asked probably the most important question of his career: what super power would he like the Hero Device to give him?
"I'd love to be able to fly, because I've had dreams in my life where I've been able to fly and it's the most amazing feeling" replies the creator enthusiastically. "Invisibility would be great because you could sneak up on people -- and then there's the old x-ray vision that would let you look in the girl's locker room. I think any of the super powers would be cool. Super speed would be cool. Who wouldn't like to run fast? If I used the dial though, I'd probably get some goofy power like throwing fireballs, which isn't horrible, but there isn't any big use for it either."
With deadlines fast approaching, Pfeifer has to get back to work, but has some final words for readers:
"At least give this book a try, because we are really trying to do something different with superhero comics. We're trying to bring some of the sensibilities of an independent comic like a 'Love & Rockets' or Peter Bagge's stuff to superhero comics to create something interesting. Even if you don't end up liking it, just give it a try."