REFLECTIONS: Talking with "Flash" and "Red Menace's" Bilson & DeMeo

Sun, October 29th, 2006 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Robert Taylor, Staff Writer

Reflections, Volume 3, Number 5

"I'd rather write a movie than an episode of someone else's TV show." - Danny Bilson

After four in-depth interviews with Jeph Loeb, Bryan Fuller, Simone Bianchi and Mike Carey, "Reflections" has finally reached its regular slot, on Sundays. Please come back every Sunday following this one if you want to be treated to even more in-depth interviews from the best and brightest in the industry.

Up this week, I've got Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo, the masterminds behind the newly relaunched "Flash: Fastest Man Alive" series from DC and the upcoming "Red Menace" miniseries from Wildstorm, which they will be co-writing with Adam Brody (yup, that guy from "The O.C."). Over their working career they have been behind such varied projects as "The Flash" and "The Sentinel" television series and "The Rocketeer" feature film - one of my all-time faves.

Bilson and DeMeo sat down to talk about their new series', writing as a team for 30 years and much, much more.

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Robert Taylor: How did you guys meet?

Paul DeMeo: We met in college. We were both theater-arts majors, and that was 30 years ago now, right?

Danny Bilson: Yeah.

PD: Wow, 30 years.

RT: What made you guys decide to write as a team?

PD: We had met in the theater-arts program doing plays together and working in the scene shop, and we needed to write a thesis for our senior project, and one of our professors suggested that we write a play. And we wrote a three-act play that was a Sherlock Holmes meets Houdini piece, performed it at the school, and we played the leads parts. That was the end our acting career, by the way. [laughs]

We decided that the writing together thing worked pretty well, and we got a good response for the play when we performed it, and that was the first thing that we wrote together.

RT: But, as you said, it has been 30 years. What's kept you together for so long?

DB: Fantastic, great success and fabulous wealth. [laughs]

PD: And he's being sarcastic. [laughs]

You know, I think we compliment each other as writers. We are also really close friends, of course. In terms of genre stuff, we both like the same types of stories and we like the same writers, so it was just a lot of common ground.

But, like a marriage, we may argue about stuff and compromise about stuff, but we have the same goals. In terms of working with a partner, with some people it works out great and for other people it doesn't. We find that we work better together because we can get a lot of work done and both come up with good ideas and maybe come up with a few better ideas as well.

RT: You guys probably hate this question, but tell me how you work together to create a script or a comic plot or something like that.

DB: We plot it out on a whiteboard these days. It's changed over the years, of course. Usually I'll go up there and write the story, then we'll go over it and change it and give notes and things. Then, once we have the story, we split it up. For many years we wrote on the same page, but in the last few years we go, "You take that scene and I'll take this scene," and on the comics it's definitely that type of thing.

For scripts it's the same thing. We write separate scenes, then bolt them together and go over them together.

PD: We were very computer-savvy right from the beginning. As soon as possible, we got two computers with word processors with one monitor so we could look at what we were writing at the same time. We would literally work on the same page at the same time together, and form the sentences and the dialogue.

As we went along, it became more feasible to work independently and get a bigger volume of work done. Once you work with someone for so long, you learn to mimic the other person's pacing and style, so it's been much more effective for us in recent years to work separately and then put it together. We find we work a lot faster that way.

RT: Looking back at your careers, what are the crowning, stand-out works for you guys?

DB: Absolutely "The Rocketeer." It was a labor of love for six years. "The Flash" television series and "The Sentinel" television series. That was our best work - that was made, anyways. Some of our best work wasn't ever filmed, actually.

PD: I think that, of the stuff produced, was our firsts. "The Rocketeer" was our first major-budget studio movie that was produced.

DB: I also have some affection for some of the B-movies that we made. "Trancers" and "Zone Troopers" I liked a lot. The one thing I want to mention that I'm really happy with is our upcoming comic "Red Menace" from Wildstorm that is coming out in November. I think that harkens back, because I feel the same way I felt about "The Rocketeer" with that book. I'm pretty excited with that book.

RT: You guys mentioned some work that never got produced. Care to elaborate?

PD: We did some work in the past that we thought was pretty good. We did a draft of Disney's "Edgar Rice Burroughs' Princess of Mars," which we thought was a really good script that didn't get made. We wrote some pilots that were really good that didn't get made and shot some pilots that were excellent that didn't go to series.

One in particular, which is quasi-known among comic book aficionados, is something we wrote at Warner Brothers called "Unlimited Powers." This is before we wrote "The Flash" pilot. It was a superhero thing with The Flash and the daughter of Green Arrow and a reinvention of Doctor Occult and a character called Blok. We are in a future society where they are fighting against all the supervillains that have taken over the earth. It was our salute to a "Watchmen"-like story. It was loved by the younger development executives as CBS, but it was a little much for the older development executives who were in charge, but it did lead to us doing "The Flash." So that was one of, if not the, favorite unproduced pilots.

DB: Also, there was a produced pilot that was really good called "It's True" that was made from cartoonist Gahan Wilson's work that we made at Paramount that was pretty great. It was the last pilot we made and a combination of live action and CG animation that was a family horror/comedy. It was really ahead of its time in 1998. It didn't get on the air because the demographics were too old for the show, basically.

RT: What made you decide to write comics right now?

PD: We have a long-standing relationship with DC Comics. Because they wanted to relaunch "The Flash," I guess it seemed like a natural extension of our work on the TV show, and they contacted us about relaunching it with Bart.

We thought that it was a great way to revisit a character and a world that we loved. We were very excited to do it, and thought it was cool.

RT: Were you up on the continuity of "The Flash" at that point? Did you read any of Geoff Johns' run?

DB: At that point we got three or four trade paperbacks of "The Flash" to get caught up before we started. I had left "The Flash" a long time ago when Barry Allen was killed in the '80s and didn't get into Wally West. But then I read Geoff's stuff, which we thought was excellent. I met with Geoff and Dan [DiDio] last September and they gave us a sheet of paper with three paragraphs on it about how they wanted it to launch.

RT: What comics, if any, were you reading when DC pitched you the book?

PD: Our comic reading has ebbed a bit since "The Flash" ended. I'd read the odd book here and there, but it became a new habit for us once we got involved with this.

DB: It started back before we started writing "The Flash." Paul was reading "Planetary" and I was reading some "Catwoman" stuff.

PD: We set out to refamiliarize ourselves with the universe.

DB: We tend to go more for original things. It was all DC stuff, I hadn't read any Marvel stuff until I picked up "Civil War."

RT: How are you liking "Civil War?"

DB: I think it's a fantastic concept, but there isn't a lot of story. I have a problem with those giant, universe-changing books because they have to service so many characters.

Back to "The Flash," our take on the first six books was to limit the amount of characters in them. Geoff had done such a great job with "Rogue War," and stories like that where every three pages was another Rogue and action scene. One of the things we were told to do was to make the focus more on Flash himself.

We have adjusted some of that since the book started to roll out in response to our own feelings and the feelings of the fans. We really set out to have it focused on one hero and one villain.

We also set out to start differently and rebuild the character of "The Flash" because it was a new character who had to accept the mantle. It's been quote an interesting journey.

RT: And what makes The Flash, as a character, work for you?

DB: Once he accepts his power, there is a tremendous joy in the power of the character. With the setup and what was given to us, it takes us four books for him to come to terms with the speed force and his life and how everything is affected by that. Books five and six are much more traditional, because the origin story starts to fade away.

PD: The other thing that I enjoyed about the character, and something we felt all the time on the show, is that he's an ordinary guy who has an extraordinary ability. He's not Superman. He doesn't come from Mars. He doesn't live under the ocean. He's a guy like the rest of us. Bart really wants to be a regular guy, but he understands that he has this mantle to accept, once he comes to terms with everything that has come before that leads him to this point. And Bart will also be having a secret identity, like the Flash classically did before with Barry. He's trying to fit in both worlds and needs to find his place in both worlds. He's a 20-year-old kid who had this experience with the Speed Force and comes out four years later and now must adjust.

That's one reason why we were tempted to come into the project; because it was a new Flash and not the same character who had been done before and done very well with Wally.

It was less interesting to us to go on a through line with an already existing character than to start new. That was a really carrot to us because, as a writer, it's great to start new.

DB: It's important to say, though, that Bart is Impulse grown up. It's not Impulse. I don't think that Impulse could be the Flash because he was too immature and hair-trigger to be a good Flash. However, having said that, once Bart gets comfortable with what's going on with the Speed Force, he becomes a very impulsive Flash. Some of his more impulsive characteristics are going to resurface once he gets comfortable.

RT: There were a lot of eyes in the comic industry focused on this launch and several critics said it would not do well, but then the numbers came out over 100,000, which is phenomenal for a character who used to sell in the 30 and 40 thousand. What was the secret to this book's success?

DB: I give credit to Dan DiDio and Ken Lashley for creating that great cover. I tend to think that our work will be more reflected in book six and the trade sales and beyond that. I have a hard time taking credit for the launch. They did a great job of creating great expectations for us.

RT: How long are you guys planning on staying on the book?

DB: We are planning on staying on the book as long as it's mutually agreed upon by us and DC. There was never the idea that it would be a limited experience or we'd only do it for a few months. We have a lot of plans and a lot of stuff laid out going forward.

PD: At this point we have outlined all the way through issue 12…

DB: …and beyond!

RT: What other comic book icons would you like to get your hands on in the near future?

PD: I think it would be a great challenge to write a Superman story. I'd love to try it. I don't know what the hell I'd do.

DB: I don't think I want any more icons. I'd rather do originals. It's too difficult to please everybody with all the expectations and all the mythology and all the DC Universe stuff. I find those opinions can be a little bludgeoning. Our other book isn't as dependant on this huge complex mythology that is sometimes really hard to track.

I'd rather write a movie than an episode of someone else's TV show.

PD: Jumping into what is essentially an ongoing story that has been happening since the 1940s is a challenge in itself. There is all that history and there is all that fan love and fan buildup and loyalty over these characters. Everyone who has been with the Flash over time has their opinions and their favorite characters, so you are jumping into an arena where you are going to be challenged.

On the other hand, there is a liberating feeling when you create your own book or character, because you are starting essentially from year zero. You are creating its history and its villains, and so that is pretty cool.

The other thing that is unique about the Flash is this: Superman has always been Superman. Batman has always been Batman. The Flash has been passed from character to character. You've got four characters that have called themselves the Flash. It's unique because in the past three incarnations, the Kid Flash became the Flash. That's pretty unique. Sometimes when you get into it, it can become a little contradictory too…

DB: Waitaminute, how many Kid Flashes did you say became the Flash?

PD: Well. Wally became the Flash, and so did Bart…

DB: That's not three, that's two. And that's my point. (laughs) It's really hard to track all the details of all the history, and it's so important to the fans.

PD: …then you had Bart who is actually three characters. He was also Impulse. So he was like pre-school Flash. It gets really complicated!

RT: Okay then, let's move away from the complicatedness (is that a word?) and on to "Red Menace." How did you guys come up with the concept and who came up with the idea to bring in Adam Brody?

DB: Before "Flash," DC gave us a call and said "You know what would be really fun? If you guys wrote a book with Adam." I thought they were talking about an "O.C." book, but they were talking about an original.

I called Adam and he said it would be fun. It was really a matter of us doing whatever we wanted, so we came up together with the "Red Menace" concept together.

RT: Which parts did you guys have the most creative input with?

DB: For awhile there, and this has changed since we started writing it, there was an older character and a younger character in "Red Menace" and in the initial stuff I felt we were owning the older character while Adam did good with the younger character, but that changed once we got into the script.

We split up the drafts a bit. Adam wrote the first draft of book 3 by himself because he really wanted to and Paul and I wrote the first drafts of book 1 and 2. And then we polished him instead of him polishing us.

PD: We also have to mention Jerry Ordway. The stuff that he is doing is so wonderful. I can't tell you enough about how it fits both the story that we are telling and this beautiful craftsmanship in every panel. It's just beautiful.

RT: Was Jerry your first choice?

PD: We were familiar with his work, and when it was suggested that he was available, we jumped right there. It worked out.

DB: He wasn't offered in the first round. There were a bunch of guys that were offered in the first round that didn't work out, then we got this call that said Jerry would be available. He always wanted to do a story about a blacklisted superhero in the '50s, so it all worked out.

RT: Is the miniseries self-contained or will you guys be returning to the characters and world later on?

DB: It's designed that we could go forward if it's a success. But it's still one big movie story in those six issues.

PD: We leave the characters at a point that is really dramatic, that could sell you in a continuing story, but it completes the first six. There is some crazy stuff in there and it gets really wild. The period stuff is really great. We use a lot of real characters and play with the history of Los Angeles.

RT: Can you guys spill any other secrets?

DB: Not until it comes out.

RT: Ready for the lightning round?

Both: Yup.

RT: What TV shows are you currently loving?

DB: "24!"

RT: "24" rocks. It was so good this season.

DB: Actually I don't watch any TV to tell you the truth, but Paul gave me the DVDs and I'm on the last hour of season 2 right now and I think it's the best show I've ever seen.

PD: I've been telling him for years that he has to watch this show.

DB: Oh, and "South Park." I do watch "South Park."

PD: I love "24." I love "Curb Your Enthusiasm," which Danny is not as enthusiastic about. But "24" is the main man. Never miss it.

DB: Of course I support my daughter and look at her work on "The O.C."

RT: Have either of you guys checked out "Veronica Mars?"

DB: Not yet. Is it good?

RT: Buy season one at Best Buy! Now! It's #@&*ing amazing.

PD: I've heard really good things about it, but I've never seen it.

RT: It takes you a few episodes to get into it, but after three or four it suddenly clicks. It's great.

RT: Next question. Has there ever been a comic that touched or changed your life in some way?

DB: "The Rocketeer." Absolutely.

PD: Yep.

DB: I loved the characters. I loved the art. And we turned it into a movie.

PD: For myself, it was "Superman." It was the gateway into all the other comics for the rest of my life. I would also mention "American Flagg." When I started reading it, the art and storytelling was so radical, it opened my eyes to another way of viewing comics.

DB: And "Herbie the Fat Fury." And "Dark Knight." And "Watchmen."

RT: If you could only write one comic for the rest of your career, what would it be?

PD: Right now it's feeling like "Red Menace." We make it up as we go along, and that's really liberating for the artist.

RT: Who would be the artist?

DB: Jerry!

PD: Jerry, man! He kicks @$$.

DB: Aside from that, what we are already doing. My fantasy book would be to write "The Rocketeer" again with Dave Stevens drawing.

RT: What's your weirdest convention experience?

Could this be the Supergirl the guys are referring to? If there's another, we want to know about it.
PD: The first time we went to one…

DB: That six-foot-six Supergirl was pretty weird. (laughs).

PD: Yes, the transvestite, transsexual…

DB: Transgender.

PD: Trans-something superhero that we saw at a ComicCon was startling. The whole experience of walking into these spaces and the absolute dedication of the fans to make these costumes and be these characters still startles me. It's really endearing. I can't imagine myself doing it, and yet, it's amazing how fully committed these people are.

RT: If you guys could only be remembered for one thing in your entire career, what would it be, and why?

DB: A nice guy.

PD: I think to be remembered as a guy who presents his best work with love and affection and dedicates themselves completely to it it important to me. Everything we do from comic books comes from a place of love and respect, and I'd like to be remembered for that.

Next Sunday: Adam Beechen! "I absolutely sympathize with fans of her character."

 
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