Chasing The Past: Looking Back on "Chase" with Johnson

Fri, November 3rd, 2006 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Zack Smith, Contributing Writer

"Chase" #1, 1998
Imagine what it'd really be like to live in the same world as Superman and Batman.

Think about it: Godlike aliens flying overhead; mysterious vigilantes in cities terrorized by freakish killers; the world almost ending almost every day…

It takes a special kind of person to stay on top of that action.

That person was Chase.

The creation of Dan Curtis Johnson, J.H. Williams III and Mick Gray, "Chase" was a book that took a decidedly unique look at the DC Universe, though the eyes of a government agent assigned to monitor those with superpowers.

Though it ran for less than a year, the book maintains a loyal following and its ideas and characters have remained part of the DCU to this day.

The book followed the adventures of Cameron Chase, the newest recruit to the Department of Extranormal Operations or DEO, a government agency that monitors metahumans - and steps in when they pose a threat.

According to Dan Curtis Johnson, the DEO came about from suggestions by DC Comics Editor Eddie Berganza, who edited the book's first several issues.

"Batman" #550
"I always wanted the DEO to be an ambiguous combination of blessing and curse," Johnson told CBR News. "Sure, they might be tampering with forces they shouldn't and perhaps they're abusing their power from time to time, but at the end of the day, they're keeping you safe from a million threats all the time, and you're glad that when you call them, someone picks up the phone."

The idea for the book originally came about because of J.H. Williams III, who served as the artist and co-writer. Though Williams was gaining a reputation from his work on such one-shots and miniseries as the western-themed "Justice Riders" at DC, Johnson had known about his friend's talents for years. "I own J.H. Williams original artwork from, like, 1989, so for me it was always a process of watching his skills grow and grow and grow over the years," Johnson said.

"Way back when neither of us was doing comics - I was in school, Jim was working at a Lyons restaurant - we'd hang around in the evening and spin comics ideas, story idea after story idea. We just really enjoyed spinning tales together, so at some point we decided we oughta do some comics together if we ever got a chance. And eventually, the chance was there."

When Williams was contacted by DC about doing an ongoing series, he convinced Berganza to take a look at a pitch from the unknown Johnson. Berganza contacted Johnson about a pitch for a horror/suspense series featuring the 1940s Green Lantern, Alan Scott, who had appeared in the one-shot "Underworld Unleashed: Abyss - Hell's Sentinel," illustrated by Williams.

The Scott pitch didn't take, but Berganza liked it enough to take another idea from Johnson and Williams - and Cameron Chase was born.

"Chase" #1, Page 3
The series launched in early 1998, preceded by Chase's first appearance in "Batman" #550, where the character showed up to help Batman deal with "Claything," a fusion of Clayface DNA with a DEO scientist. The issue, by Doug Moench and Kelley Jones, also featured DEO file cards introducing the reader to the DEO - and their slightly askew take on the heroes of the DC Universe.

In "Chase" # 1, readers were formally introduced to Cameron Chase as she moved to New York City and officially started work at the DEO as she dealt with being rushed out to Ohio to deal with Jerry Harris, a bullied junior-high-school kid who unexpectedly manifested flame powers - and with the hassle of moving to New York and starting a new job.

For Johnson, the everywoman aspects of Chase's character were a big part of the series' appeal.

"Cameron could be someone you've met, someone you knew in college, someone you see on the train every morning," Johnson said. "She gets irritable for no good reason sometimes, argues with her boyfriend, and has trouble finding parking for her Camaro. She doesn't need an alter ego to be in the everyday world - she just is - and that makes her a lot more like us than, say, J'onn J'onzz or Bruce Wayne or even 'everyman' Clark Kent."

Harris was taken down by Chase by strange powers she secretly possessed - powers she neither wanted nor understood. The abilities also came in handy in the storyline in issues #2 and 3, a mission involving old Justice League villain The Construct, the Russian superheroes The Rocket Reds, real-life Peruvian guerillas The Shining Path, and most notably, the Dirty Dozen-type group of freed supervillains, the Suicide Squad.

Doing a Suicide Squad story was a treat for Johnson. "When I got back into comics in the late '80s, I dropped right into the Squad/Checkmate/Captain Atom stuff, the dirty government books," Johnson said. "I loved that stuff. Getting a chance to actually write the Squad was like being handed the keys to your dad's sports car."

"Chase" #2, Page 8
This storyline also introduced the DEO's Director, who was revealed as Mister Bones, a skeletal-looking superhuman from the 1980s book "Infinity, Inc."

Bones' involvement in the book came about in a strange moment of editorial kismet. Late in the book's development, Johnson was trying to decide on the Director's identity, and knew that he wanted it to be a retired DC villain. After seeing Bones in a "DC Who's Who" book and noticing the character reading up on the U.S. Penal Code in his last appearance, Johnson made a note to ask Berganza if the character was available for the book.

"Later that day, when I talked to him on the phone, he said, 'Hey, did you ever read 'Infinity, Inc.?' There was this guy, Mister Bones, and I was thinking he might be a good choice for the Director,'" Johnson said.

"My jaw practically dropped to the floor in amazement. True story! It was stuff like that that made me realize 'Chase' was going to really click once we brought it all together."

The book's style allowed it to tell a wide variety of stories. There could be humorous tales, like Chase helping Booster Gold and the Teen Titans repel an invasion of Z-list supervillains at a toy store appearance (issue #4), flashbacks to Chase's encounters with metahumans in her days as a private investigator (issues #5 and 6), and darker tales where Chase dealt with her problems with both superpowered beings and her own emerging abilities.

Though the nature of Chase's powers were hinted at in a few places, including a "Wizard" magazine contest tying into the comic, Johnson insisted that they were never intended to be completely defined.

"Chase" #2, Page 20
"We wanted to keep (her abilities) deliberately vague - a general sort of not-entirely-controllable ability to interfere with the exceptional abilities of others, pretty much totally useless against normal people," Johnson said.

"As for what role it would have played [in the series]... Cameron, as we originally envisioned her, was something of a racist. Superpowers are aberrant; they're wrong. People who have them are broken. She definitely didn't want to have a power herself. In fact, she might have eventually gone to rather extreme lengths to try and get rid of it.

"And of course, the harder she tries to hide it (or eradicate it), the more likely it is that the Department is going to get wind of it."

Why did Chase have such an attitude toward superheroes? Issue #6, "Girls' Day Out" revealed the secrets of her past, which until then had only been hinted at through cryptic dialogue and dream sequences.

While trapped in an elevator at DEO headquarters with her sister Terry, Chase reveals to Terry the secret of their father, Walter. During the time between the Justice Society and the Justice League, Walter had been the "Acro-Bat," leader of a team of heroes called "The Justice Experience." But the elder Chase was murdered by a steel-jawed villain called Doctor Trap and young Cameron was the one who found his body.

The issue was a favorite of Johnson's, who feels that it represents the series at its best.

"Chase" #3, Page 1
"[It's] a story that is deeply, inescapably about superheroes, and yet there aren't any superhero fights, none of the traditional superhero action. There was a fair bit of skepticism around the DC offices when the issue was coming up, but I think it won everyone over, and it really was the first chance we had to lay out what we really wanted to say with the series."

Johnson admits that he had plans for other stories with the "Justice Experience" characters, which were created as a reaction to editorial changes mandating that "modern-day" heroes such as Superman and Batman had only been around for about 10 years.

"We created a little interposed history, one that we thought would be appropriate to the loss of innocence and the disillusionment that America experienced through the '60s and '70s," Johnson said. "And yes, we had lots and lots of ideas for these characters. Still do, really, but I dunno that they would be appropriate for the DCU proper."

Chase's last few issues brought her up against Batman again in "Shadowing the Bat," where Chase traveled to Gotham to investigate a mutagenic drug and to secretly monitor Batman and discern his secret identity for the DEO.

Chase and Batman had a memorably contentious relationship, with Batman's aversion to guns and government agencies rubbing up against Chase's dislike of costumed vigilantes - or, indeed, anyone who tried to push her around.

"My fundamental view of Batman is that he's kind of an asshole who enjoys being more in control of the situation than everyone else," said Johnson, who worked on the character again in the 2006 "Legends Of The Dark Knight" storyline "Snow" with Williams and the late Seth Fisher (the story will be collected by DC in March 2007).

"Chase" #4, Page 13
"Chase, on the other hand, is kind of an asshole who gets really confrontational towards the type of person who always needs to have the last word. Maybe they would have eventually worked into a marvelous Tracy/Hepburn sort of chemistry."

Readers never got a chance to find out what would have happened with Chase and Batman - the series was abruptly canceled as part of the "DC 1,000,000" crossover, after a tale showing the DEO in the future.

The last issue wasn't intended as such. In fact, the 1,000,000 issue had already been completed and work on successive issues had begun when the announcement came down.

"We didn't even have a chance to go back and tweak anything in 'Chase' #1,000,000 after the fact; we were dead before we even heard the bullet that killed us," Johnson said.

"There are something like seven completed pages of 'Chase' #10; JH and Mick gave me pages 2 and 3 for my birthday a few years back, featuring Cam sitting, alone, on the surface of the moon surrounded by a debris field and the last of her oxygen bottles, typing her dying words into a Palm Pilot so that eventually, when someone finds her body, they'll know what happened.

"Man, what a fun story that was going to be..."

"Chase" #6, Page 10
Despite the cancellation, "Chase" and her creators stayed on. Not only did Williams go on to collaborate with such writers as Alan Moore ("Promethea"), Grant Morrison ("Seven Soldiers") and Warren Ellis ("Desolation Jones"), but he and Johnson did a number of stories with Chase and the DEO for DC's "Secret Files" series of specials.

Though "Secret Files" are no longer being published, the DEO has remained part of the DC Universe, making regular appearances in many different titles.

And Johnson believes that the book could rise again.

"I am certain DC would love to see some sort of Chase/DEO book back in regular rotation, it's just a question of finding the right tone, content, style for the book," Johnson said.

"J.H. is really solidly booked up with other projects, so even though he'd still be part of the writing, there would need to be someone else drawing - but who's going to step into those shoes? Anyway, it's something J.H. and I never let far out of our minds, but we haven't brought a serious pitch to DC about it in a while."

Cameron Chase has stuck around the DCU, most recently showing up as a supporting character in "Manhunter." Johnson admits that he hasn't read those appearances.

"If she's being handled well, I don't want to feel jealous. If she's being handled poorly, I don't want to feel sad." Johnson said. "Part of contributing to a shared universe is knowing how to let go. Jim and I created her and gave her the best start we could, but at some point your kids have to move out of the house and face the world, you know?"

Still, "Chase" will always remain close to Johnson's heart.

"Chase" #8, Pages 2 & 3
"At first, you know, 'Chase' was just this pitch that we came up with so Eddie would give us a job working on a book together. Just a job, that's all - a chance for me to break in and for Jim to create something new," Johnson said. "Then, as we started actually working on the book, we got really involved, really wrapped up in her and what we wanted to do with her and her whole world. Now, eight years (jeez, eight years!) since the book got cancelled, 'Chase,' the book itself, sort of feels like an ex-girlfriend. One that, you know, you broke up with because circumstances came up beyond your control, not because of how you felt about each other. Just one of those impossible situation things. And you haven't seen each other in a long time, or really kept in touch much, but you still think about her every once in a while, hope she's doing okay.

"But you kinda don't want to know - because part of you really wants to believe you'll get back together again, but another part of you suspects that if you saw her again,

you'd both look at each other and realize you've changed too much, that you no longer have anything in common anymore"

Whatever the case, "Chase's" 10 issues remain - a unique and offbeat look at what it would really be like to live in a world full of superheroes.

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