MEGACON - A CHAT WITH CHUCK DIXON & ROBERT ATKINS
By David T. Allen & Todd H. Latoski
Fans of the various G.I. Joe series published by IDW had the opportunity at this year's MegaCon to meet writer Chuck Dixon and artist Robert Atkins. ComicRelated sat down with these two creators and chat with them about their work.
Dixon started by discussing the conclusion to the "Search for the Cobra Commander" story. He joked that this story was one of those rare occasions where they actually planned ahead. From the very beginning, Krake was introduced into the comics for the sole purpose of becoming the new Cobra Commander. That's why when you see Krake in the stories, you never see his face. "We sort of slipped him in there so early," Dixon said, "so that it didn't look like it was a gimmick. We slipped him in a couple of issues before the Cobra War began."
Atkins said when he was asked to design the character, he had no idea it was the intention that Krake would become the new Commander. "I pulled various Viper elements from the troops," Atkins said, "which actually ended up working out really well. I wanted him to look different from the other troops around him. He was obviously the leader of that squad that was attacking that village in issue 24, and so it actually worked out really well. Then, we used those elements from the design I created for the Cobra Commander design. Again, it comes from the troops." Dixon added that the only real direction was that they would have to be able to recognize this guy, even though his face was never shown, and Atkins accomplished that well in his designs.
Concerning the actual death of the Cobra Commander, Dixon said that killing the Commander seemed like a logical turn of events within a group like Cobra. "These guys don't last forever," he said. "They are in place for life, but that doesn't necessarily mean their life is going to be a long one. It is a criminal organization, and he's heading up this army of backstabbers. He's more like a Caesar. He serves until he goes a step too far, and then the praetorians turn on him." This also gave Dixon an opportunity to switch from having a suave, Euro-trash Cobra Commander to someone who is more of a military man, and thus, change the focus of Cobra. It is now becoming more of what G.I. Joe has always been - a war book. "When we were able to confuse the readers by adding more new characters," Dixon said, "brought in with the Cobra Wars thing, Joe is ripe with red herrings." Atkins admitted he was interested in seeing where a particular character would go that Snake Eyes was after in the Snake Eyes series. "Since we didn't know who was going to be the Cobra Commander," Atkins said, "I didn't know he was going to be taken out. I was on edge too, trying to figure out who was going to be the next Commander." Atkins said he tries not to read too far in advance, if he has a lot of scripts, because he still likes to be surprised about it. "I mean," Atkins laughed, "I do read it before I draw it."
Dixon joked that Snake Eyes' enemies should have the same life expectancy as Punisher's. If a villain has lost the battle, but is still alive, then Snake Eyes has failed somehow. "Those characters wouldn't have the reputation they do, otherwise," Atkins pointed out. "And I don't mean that as fan-service. I mean, that is their character. They are that driven, they are almost that obsessive about how devoted they are to their craft. To what their purpose is." For Atkins, you get an idea about the character's personality, about how he lives his life because those are the end results - not because fans like them.
When asked whether Hasbro had any involvement or thoughts about the whole change in leadership for Cobra, Dixon replied that they do not deal with Hasbro directly that often. "I mean," Dixon said, "I was on a conference call with some Hasbro guys once, and you wouldn't have known they were there. They were like the quality control people when you call in for tech support. ';This call may be recorded...' They were just there, and they were very nice and they would chime in at certain points, but they didn't want to get involved in our creative process when we were talking, which was incredible." Our editors have been absolutely fantastic to work with, and they work with Hasbro more as far as what they like and don't like, or what they don't want them to use. The editors have been able to win them over with things that, at first, Hasbro objected to, but once the reasons are explained for wanting to go a certain direction in the story or such, Hasbro has agreed. The idea of replacing the Cobra Commander didn't really meet with many objections, because Hasbro saw creatively why they wanted to do it and why it's part of the G.I. Joe structure anyway. Atkins also added that although Hasbro does object now and again, they are open-minded enough to allow Dixon to make his case for why he wants to do something. If Hasbro simply won't budge on a certain issue, then obviously they are willing to work around it, since ultimately what Hasbro says, goes. At the same time, Hasbro is incredibly open-minded. Dixon said they are pretty much on the same page as them. "I like to think," Dixon said, "that when I'm working on a comic, I don't have a boss, I simply have a series of partners, where we are all helping each other create the best comic we can. And I look at Hasbro that way. They are on board, and they are really partners in making these comics good."
Taking the conversation back to the comics, we asked the creators if, following the "Cobra Civil War" and the "Search for the Cobra Commander" storylines, and the current "Cobra's Revenge" story, will the books go back to having their own, self-contained stories? Dixon started off by saying they planned to use more references to the other books, rather than strict crossovers. "There are events in G.I. Joe and Cobra that affect Snake Eyes," Dixon said, "and so I'll reference things. But I make sure it's not a reference where fans don't know what happens unless they buy the other books. I make sure that, like, in G.I. Joe, I'm bringing you up to speed with what's been going on in Snake Eyes. And there's an event at the end of ';Cobra Command' that, if I left the Joe readers hanging on it, it would be cruel. And then, Mike [Costa] and I are working closer now, as we had a couple of instances where we had characters in two places at the same time, and we quickly had to re-write them before publication. We are trying to coordinate closer." Dixon confirmed that they are not planning any "mega-crossovers" any time soon, but they may do a one month crossover, where the three books link to one story, and that would be the extent of it for the foreseeable future. They are, however, in the planning stages of an event. The way they want to do the big events is, they want to think of the whole story first, not just say "Let's go do a big cross over next year, and these are the months we'll do it." Dixon said that Mike Costa had already thought of an awesome idea for another crossover, what he called a "big, high concept thing" that he believes will get people talking. It will get people talking as much as the Cobra Civil War got people talking. But they won't be doing any events simply for the sake of doing an event. Dixon added, "I'd like to say, our events really do change the status quo. We bring the stories to a satisfying resolution. At the end of our big event, it's not ';by the next big event...'"
Outside of G.I. Joe, Dixon is still involved with Bongo Comics, doing about four issues of Simpsons per year. He says that is pretty much all he can do, as the Simpsons are hard to do. He is also doing some Spongebob for Bongo, as well as a new Airboy series through Antarctic Press.
Atkins is currently working on issues 13 through 16 of Snake Eyes, which is a self-contained arc. He is planning to be on the next six issues, or for however many issues they work out the next arc after that. With the Joe books, Atkins feels he is a comfortable fit, because he is so detail-oriented, and he does everything he can to make sure that any vehicles and weapons that are used in the book are drawn as close as possible to specifications. With so many military men and women reading the book, he wants to show them the proper respect, and not have them read the book thinking, "Oh, that's now how it would work" or "that impossible." If you can't make the structure of it, or build a believable scene, then the property will be lost. "In an issue of Snake Eyes," Atkins said, "there is a splash page of Tokyo at night, and helicopters flying in. Some people might cringe at that, but I got excited. I jumped in on it and had a blast on this page!" Dixon agrees that it is hard to find artists like Atkins, who are willing to do that stuff. Atkins is also working on a larger graphic novel with Larry Hama. That work is a property created by Ryan Shifrin, who does a lot of work in Hollywood. Shifrin created the property, then pulled Larry Hama in pretty early in the development to script it out. That will be coming out this summer. There is preview of it already online at www.whoisthecollector.com, which will give fans a sense of who the characters are. Atkins also works with Andy Schmidt, a former editor at IDW, who created an instructional school called "Comics Experience" (which can be found at www.comicsexperience.com). Schmidt asked Atkins to come on as an instructor and teach the Introduction to Storytelling and Advanced Storytelling classes. The school also teaches coloring, inking, writing, and even editing classes. It is an online teaching experience, and students sign up online and the teachers instruct through video chat, so it is real-time, live class room instruction. The students can all see the instructor, the instructor can watch all the students, and everyone communicates through microphones. The program used allows Atkins to share his computer screen and what he is doing with the students. So when Atkins uses photoshop to critique someone's work, then photoshop will open up on all the students' computers as well so they can watch as he works. It is very interactive, and it is a great way for Atkins to give critiques and lectures. Typically, the classes run six to eight weeks a few times a year. The next comic storytelling class at the end of April. Atkins also has planned a Dynamic Figure Drawing class this summer, and they will continue to build classes as the interest in them grows. Atkins finds it to be a lot of fun, and he has a real passion for teaching.
The conversation then shifted to characters within the Joe books. Dixon said that in an upcoming script that Atkins would be drawing, the Dreadnoks appear. "I'm also introducing a new character," Dixon said, "I don't want to say his name yet. But it's a military character that the Joes have never had before. They've never had a scrounger before." Dixon added that the Joes are going to be getting their budget cut, and so they're going to need a scrounger to get the things that they need outside the normal channels. There's a very subtle hint, Dixon stated, that a scrounger is coming when the Joes moved to Fort Baxter, Kansas. Atkins threw out there that G.I. Joe doesn't have any Puerto Rican members, and that several of his friends who are Puerto Ricans wanted to know why that is. Atkins and his friends went through a list of all the Joes and confirmed there has never been a Puerto Rican G.I. Joe.
The twins, Tomax and Xamot, were brought up for discussion, and Dixon said he definitely has plans, which Costa likes. "The problem with some of these Joe characters," Dixon said, "is that Mike and I are intimidated by their awesomeness. You don't want to bring them back until you bring them back in the most awesome way you can imagine. That's why you haven't seen the Dreadnoks yet. That's why you haven't seen a lot of Stormshadow. But now, I'm more comfortable with Storm Shadow, so I can use him. And because we have the luxury of introducing them in as dramatic a way as possible, we are really taking advantage of that. But we have plans for the twins, and we have to figure that one out. Where to present it? I mean, there's so many story possibilities, we actually have option paralysis. And as I said, you can't just keep doing big events for the sake of big events, but a lot of these characters deserve a big event to bring them back on stage. It's all in play. I'm going to get to every Joe before I'm done, because every Joe is someone's favorite!" Dixon stated that a fan showed him a Joe yesterday that was on one page of Larry Hama's run, and yet that was the fan's favorite Joe. Hit-n-Run. The fan has a Facebook page for Hit-n-Run and is crazy about him. "It must have been his first Joe story to read," Atkins suggested.
On the topic of first stories, Dixon relayed the story of how he first broke into comics. He had always been doodling in college, and he submitted work to both DC and Marvel and anywhere, going to conventions and talking with editors (back when editors actually went to conventions). Dixon was working as a security guard at an insurance company, and he was talking with Hilary Barta, a comic book artist at the time, who told Dixon that Larry Hama was thinking about starting back up the Savage Tales comic with all war stories and western stories. Barta suggested that he get in on it. "I gotta get in on this," Dixon said, "but Hilary told me that Larry can be harsh, he can be touch on freelance writers. Larry will deny it, but that's the way he saw it. He thought it was cruel to be kind. So Hilary said to be ready for that." Dixon said he is not normally an angry, in-your-face kind of guy, but he knew he had to "chin it up" because he wanted to be on this book. "So, I called Larry," Dixon continued, "and I said, ';Larry, I'm Chuck Dixon. I've heard about the Savage Tales book. You need me!' Larry said, ';I need you? Why the hell do I need you? I never heard of you.' I replied, ';Look, those comic book writers just don't know which end of the gun those bullets come out of, right?' Larry admitted I was right, and I said, ';I know this stuff. I love this stuff as much as you do. I'll do the homework. If I don't know it, I'll find out. I really want this war and western work. I'm not that big of a superhero guy. I'm really into the war and western.' And Larry said, ';You send in some stories, and I'll decide if I need you or not.' So I send in about a dozen plots, and Larry calls back and says, ';Yeah, okay, I like six of these.' And I thought to myself, if I die right now, I'm the happiest guy in the world. But if I never do another comic book story, I'll consider myself having had a rich comic history after that. And then, I proved my reliability, I got all my work in on time, all my stories turned out good. I still think it's some of the best work I've ever done, even after twenty-five plus years of writing comics. And then Larry went around to all the other editors at Marvel and told them, ';Look, this guy's reliable, he brings in the stuff, you should give him a try." So Larry went beyond a break, the guy was really a mentor to me. And through the years, I've enjoyed any contact with him."
Both Dixon and Atkins were surprised at how supportive the fans have been with the Joe books. They seem to really get behind the books. "Not only do they have a love for the property," Atkins said, "but they are really supportive of the creators. When I come to the shows, that's what I hear a lot of. I'm glad they appreciate the time and effort we put into it. The fans are really great. They are pretty vocal about the things they like and don't like. More so than some other properties, they are nice about it. Even if they are objecting to one thing or the next, they are very cordial about it." Atkins said he has had a really good time getting to know the fans across the country. Dixon said some of their fans are currently serving in the military, which for them, is very cool. "And they're not reading any other comics," Atkins said. "This is the book they read." That is the thing about Joe fans, Dixon pointed out, this is the only comic book they read. "Which places a responsibility on us to get it right," Dixon said.
Dixon added that when he comes to conventions, and when someone works in comics for as long as he is, you end up with a garage full of complimentary issues sent by the publisher. So Dixon has stacks of comics that he wrote that he doesn't really need, so he drags them to the convention, puts out a donation jar, and they are "Books for Soldiers." Fans can donate whatever they want to the cause, take a comic, and Dixon will sign the book for them. "Books for Soldiers" is sort-of like Amazon.com, but it's free for military personnel serving in combat areas, such as Afghanistan. They can just go online and order whatever book, movie, or music that anyone in the States can order, and they get them for free, so that they can specifically get what they want. Dixon believes it is a great service for our military men and women. The organization has sent hundreds of thousands of books, CDs and DVDs over to the troops, and Dixon is happy to do his little bit. "The people here at MegaCon," Dixon said, "have been extraordinarily generous this year. They usually are generous, but they've gone above and beyond this time."
Both Dixon and Atkins were very pleased with the turn out at MegaCon, Dixon observing that the turn out had more than doubled since his last time at the convention. With the wider aisles to accommodate the larger crowds, both creators saw a lot of traffic at their tables. Atkins compared it to C2E2 relative to size and crowds, which he found amazing that MegaCon has that draw without any of the major publishers present. The fans are there simply to see the artists, the creators, the celebrities, and the vendors, and as far as Dixon is concerned, this is the most fan-friendly crowd of any. "No one gets close to the way Beth Widera runs this con," Dixon said. "It is perfection."
Dixon and Atkins thanked all the fans who stopped by to say talk and get autographs and sketches and look forward to seeing more at the next convention!
Todd H. Latoski/Writer
Todd was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, but moved to Florida back in the late 1980s. Todd grew up reading comics and have always been a fanboy. Working in the legal field by day and writing his heart out at night (with three published comic stories to date, and one more in the works),Todd has been doing MegaCon coverage for several years and looks forward to doing so for many years go come.
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