Tom King talks DC's Danger Street: "This is the meanest thing I could've done to an artist" (Sorry, Jorge Fornés!)
In a free-wheeling chat at New York Comic Con, the Human Target writer talks about cake, shame, and DC's First Issue Special
If audiences are used to expecting one thing from Tom King, his current work might surprise them. In addition to the continuing Human Target miniseries with Greg Smallwood that transfers the '80s Justice League International characters into a modern noir setting, he’s just started Gotham City: Year One with Phil Hester — an actual noir story with Slam Bradley at the center — and, this December, launches Danger Street with Jorge Fornés.
Built around the stars of the short-lived '70s series First Issue Special, Danger Street revives some of DC’s lesser-known heroes — Metamorpho, Manhunter, the Green Team, and Lady Cop — for a sprawling, genre-defining, story unlike anything else in mainstream comics. Popverse caught up with King at New York Comic Con to talk to King about what’s coming up, why First Issue Special, and just what he’d done wrong that very day.
Popverse: I have to be honest, I’m really excited to read Danger Street. But I have to ask: why are you doing a book based on all the characters from DC First Issue Specials? I mean, I love them, but I always thought I was I was the only person.
Tom King:Wait, you've actually heard of DC's First Issue Specials?
I've read them all! Lady Cop is amazing.
It is. It’s John Rosenberger on art. He died the next year in a car accident. That was the last thing he did. That was the end of John Rosenberg. He was a big guy in romance comics.
I’ve read the entire run of First Issue Special. They're great: Manhunter, Atlas, Creeper —
Some of them are great. The Doctor Fate issue is amazing. There's really some bad stuff. The Outsiders is one of the worst comics ever.
This is your way of saying that Danger Street is all about the Outsiders, isn’t it?
It is. It's very Outsiders focused. [Laughs]
Honestly, though, why First Issue Special as an inspiration for this series?
DC put out a hardcover [collection]. I don't know why someone in DC got an itch to put this out. I got the comp and I was like, 'What is this?' I started flipping through it and it was so random. I was like, 'What?' There's myths about why it existed. It was some fight between old editors or something. Mike Gold told me it was because they had a bunch of Kirby stuff left over when he went to Marvel.
Yeah. There's like three or four Kirby issues in that run.
They just created a series to dump it out and so we got Dingbats of Danger Street. Then they throw in the New Gods, but it's the weird Don Newton, Gerry Conway New Gods, where they're all in superhero costumes. I was reading through it and I was like, 'These are such weird characters. How can they all exist in the same universe?'
And then you went, 'Wait!'
Except for Omega Men, which is now quite a ways away. I've just written single people comics. They're always focused on one person's problems — usually there's a man and a woman. I haven't done the team book ever except for Omega Men. I was looking for a challenge and I was like, 'Oh, this is the exact opposite [of what I do].' Depending on how you count the New Gods, there's something between 21 and 24 characters. I was like, 'Can I do a book that has all these characters but they're not on a team. They're always kind of colliding.'
So, each of these characters is their own protagonist? It's not like, 'We’re doing the Dingbats series, and everyone else comes in and does a guest star appearance'? Are you actually going to be doing Lady Cop stories?
Yeah. I hate to say, but the model of it is a Coen Brothers film, like a Fargo kind of thing where you're following the criminals who did the crime and you're also following the cops who are chasing the criminals. You're following the drug warlord who’s seven levels above. The wire or something like that. First you're following 13 different stories that are all colliding. Atoms colliding with each other and bouncing off into one sort of cogent whole story. It was a challenge. It was something new.
What was it like to work on, for real? Was there a point where you're like, 'Oh, I've just realized... I've been saying it as a joke, but Lady Cop is great. There is a lot of potential with Lady Cop!'
That was the first thing. I was like, 'Lady Cop, that might be one of the dumbest names of a superhero of all time.'
It's certainly descriptive.
You get a picture in your head, but then you read the issue and she has this Punisher origin story. It's written by Bob Kanigher, who wrote some good comics. There was this kidnapping that happened in the sixties where a guy killed all these people at college and there was one woman who was hidden under his bed, and she survived. They took that story and they made that Lady Cop's origin story.
I immediately saw it. Yeah. I'm like, 'Oh, she's the cop in Fargo.' That was the first thing that occurred to me. Now I have a awesome protagonist and I was like, 'Lady Cop, obviously she doesn't want to be called Lady Cop.' I was like, 'Oh, but the Dingbats of Danger Street, they're like asshole little kids! They would call her Lady Cop and she would call them Dingbats.' And so now we have an origin story for both of their names. Now we're just off to the races.
I am genuinely in love with the idea of this series, in large part because it's made up of obscure characters that no one thinks about.
People are like, 'Oh, you work with Human Target, that's pretty obscure.' He had two TV shows! The Outsiders have appeared in two comics. They were in their original comic, and Grant Morrison put them in the background of one panel. That's it for the Outsiders. That's their whole run.
They're going to get a TV show after this because of you.
They're going to be the most popular characters! [Laughs]
Okay, you just mentioned the real life origin of Lady Cop, but Gotham City; Year One also has actual historical origins. Is it the Lindbergh Baby? Are you now obsessed with connecting the dots between reality and comic books?
They said, we want you to do a Batman book. I was like, 'Sweet. Batman sells great. That's going to be awesome. I can feed my family.' 'No, but we want it without Batman.' I was like, 'No, that's the key! That's what people love about Batman books!' [Laughs]
You have Slam Bradley! Again with the obscure characters that I like. Give me more obscure characters, Tom.
Slam Bradley is still seven levels above the Outsiders, I tell you. He was drawn by Darwyn Cooke, so he can't be that bad!
I was just looking for a story, and I wanted to write something spooky. I was like, 'I'm going to read some true crime.' I read a bunch of true crime books and of course I came across the Lindbergh baby. I read a bunch about that; I was like, "Oh this is such a Gotham City story." Because that is a really fucked up story, the Lindbergh kidnappings. It's like 90% soft and 10% not. The good guys in the story are Lindbergh and Lindbergh turns out to be just the most horrible person of all time. He was a pseudo Nazi! Plus, he had two secret families. Most people have one secret family. He did two.
Imagine the timekeeping!
Yes! [Laughs] Can you imagine? Well that's why he flew a plane, so he could get there faster. He didn't have to beat traffic. It's a very strange case where all these sort of mysterious letters went back and forth and they had this random guy helping them who just was a high school principal, came out and became the central figure. Anyways, I had that in my head. I've been doing this noir kick, I've been flirting with noir but throwing it in my stuff as an influence.
Human Target is more than flirting with noir.
There are still superheroes! Ice has super powers!
I’m always deconstructing genres. I was like, 'What if I just construct a genre?' I hate to say it that way, but I was like, "What if I just do a pour of the actual straight hard stuff, and do a Chandler? Every stupid noir that mocks noir starts the same way, which is a guy in an office with the shades, and a pretty girl walks in and gives him a mystery. They're all just going after the Maltese Falcon. But the actual original Maltese Falcon with Bogart is actually really good and it really works. The book is one of the best written books of all time. It's kind of one of the foundational American novels.
I was like, 'Can we still find some energy in that formula without breaking the formula like I usually do with Human Target or something?" When I was writing, I was like, 'DC you sure you want this? There's no superheroes.' They're like, 'No, that's what we want.'
I wondered how to make it interesting. I love Slam Bradley, but nobody cares about him. I was like, 'Gotham City is an actual character. That's an actual huge character in DC comics.' I was like, "Well let's do an origin of Gotham City. Let's set it back and see how —“ I grew up in LA. I went to school in New York. I live in DC. My wife's from Chicago. I'm sort of familiar with US cities and none of them are Gotham. Gotham is a horrible, terrible place. I was like, "How did Gotham go from normal US city to just the ruin of America? Let's talk about that. Let's talk about who broke off and how it broke."
That's what it became. It's a Slam Bradley story that combines the Lindbergh Baby with an origin of Gotham City and a little Dashiell Hammett — or a lot of Dashiell Hammett — and some Chinatown. All those! Push it together. It also has sort of a race aspect to it. I grew up in the LA riots when I was a kid, my junior high burned down. In 1960s there's a lot of racial tension. I want to sort talk about that a little bit in this book.
It has a lot in it. Phil [Hester] came on and just nailed it. He knows that stuff back and forth, he's from that genre, so he knows how to do it.
You are so playful when you're talking about these and yet, all of these things are incredibly dense with formalism and intense and genre deconstruction and, like you said, construction.
I just read that Alan Moore interview that was that's going around. I'm like, 'Oh man, I got to get deeper. Nobody's going to take me seriously. I'm a fucking kid from Southern California. My accent's like I'm on a beach.' That guy just says, 'I'm a magician.'
It's the beard.
I have a beard! [Laughs] It's because I'm bald. You and me, we understand each other. It's discrimination against the un-haired. That's what it is.
We are bald white men with beards in comics. Here, we’re the majority.
We are the brotherhood.
You have a career unlike anyone else. Do you ever sit back and think about that? You’re one of DC’s biggest writers, but you’re working almost entirely out of continuity on characters like Human Target, Slam Bradley, Dingbats of Danger Street —
I like this interview. [Laughs] I’m not used to people telling me, 'Tom, You're wonderful.' No, I'm half Jewish. I look in the mirror and say, 'Why? What did you do wrong today?' [Laughs]
What did you do wrong today?
That's what I do! [Laughs] Why did you eat that piece of cake? Goddamnit.
Do you ever have a moment of like, 'How did I get here? What is happening?'
Danger Street was built for Jorge. We were looking for our next project and this is what I thought in my head. Jorge and I were out last night. We don't see each other too often, he’s in Spain, and he's like, 'I'm afraid you're not excited about this book, because whenever I email you, you don't email me back.' I was like, 'Because your art is perfect so I don't know what to say besides perfect. I have no notes or anything. You nailed it.'
I was like, 'We have to step back for a second from Danger Street. There's never been a comic like this before.' Supergirl [Woman of Tomorrow] — there have been comics where people go in space and go on missions and solve the mission at the end. That's happened before. But no one's ever done 24 characters who aren't on the same team bumping into each other and falling apart. Even Watchman at the end are on the same team.
You never do something in comics that's never done before! I wrote a hundred issues of Batman; every single issue had been done before. It's like the Simpsons writers today:” Oh we've already done this." I was saying to Jorge, "We have to keep perspective on that.”
I write my comics different now. I write them all as one. Yeah. By the time it comes out, Jorge's drawing issue five now. I wrote this over a year ago, maybe a year and a half.
Does that make it new for you? Do you read that and be like, "Oh, I don't remember writing this, and it's good”? Did you ever have that moment where you forget what you're done?
Oh yeah. Whenever I get the letters back, it's always a crap shoot. I was like, "I can't remember, was I drinking that day?" I have no idea. [Laughs] Was I mad about my cake thing that day? I don't know.
Human Target is the best, right? Because of Greg [Smallwood], it became bit of a phenomenon. When something becomes a phenomenon — like The Vision, I got this a little bit with that book too — if you're still writing the book, it's very stressful. You can feel readers’ expectation, and it becomes, “don't fuck it up up."
You never know as a writer. You're like, "Was I a good writer? Did I lose it?" Now, I’m like, "Oh thank God. Year-And-A-Half-Ago Tom wrote this because he knew what he was doing. I clearly don't anymore." It's a relief sometimes. I have to trust that younger me who was stuck inside during Covid who wrote this. Yeah, I don't know. That's a long answer to your question. No, I never lean back and say, "Oh this is wonderful.” That's just not my personality. I only feel guilt and shame. That's how I run my life. [Laughs]
People are going to read this interview and be like, "I want to buy that. I want the guilt and shame book.”
This is the meanest thing I could've done to an artist. If I had done this to Clay [Mann], he would've punched me in the face. Jorge's farther away. He’s in Spain. Mitch [Gerads] and I talk every day; he’d be cussing me up. There's a lot of panels. There's a bajillion characters. It was a really hard task for Jorge and he just drove it out of the park. The storytelling is pristine and beautiful and clear. He started at sort of a David Mazzuchelli look, and now he's fully Jorge now. He's his own thing. It's an amazing book. It's funny. It stars Non-Fat from the Dingbats of Danger Street. It's cool. Yeah,
I’m like Jorge right now. I absolutely can't tell if you're excited about this book or not.
I'm super excited! I can't be more excited.
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