The Birds of Prey
Writing the Birds of Prey

An Interview with Chuck Dixon

by Jennifer A. Ford

Chuck Dixon is one of the most prolific writers in the comics field, and is the driving force (and sole writer since the beginning) behind three of DC Comics' most buzz-worthy titles: Nightwing, Robin (Wizard Magazine's 1998 comic book series of the year) and, most important to we Birdwatchers, Birds of Prey. He is also past writer of such titles as DC's flagship Detective Comics, Catwoman, and Green Arrow (yes, he's the man who killed Oliver Queen)!

It would take up a LOT of space to list all of his credits, though highlights include Joker: The Devil's Advocate and his extensive work on the Knightfall, Knightquest, and Knightsend mega-crossovers (which chronicled the fall and rise of the Bat) and the immediate follow-up Prodigal crossover which dealt with Nightwing's undertaking of the mantle of the Bat. As Robin's scribe, he's had the honor of wrapping up Bat-crossovers for the past several years, and he has single-handedly defined the character of Nightwing, the coolest guy in the DCU. He's a man who not only knows his DC history and his Bat history in particular but has also written a great deal of it himself.

Dixon shares a birthplace with the United States of America (pop quiz! — oh, all right, it's Philadelphia) and spent his childhood in the same ways as most of us comic fans — reading, watching movies and TV, hanging with friends, and reading comic books. He continues to live on the east coast along with his wife and kids and "the world's most dangerous miniature Schnauzer" named, appropriately enough, Squire.

The Interview:

Birdwatching: Everyone always asks, how did you get interested in comics? How did you get published? What was your first published work? So I'm asking.

Chuck Dixon: I was sick a lot as a kid. A family doctor suggested my mom get me a lot of comic books 'cause I was missing so many days of school. The comics would help me learn to read. God bless you, Doc! After that I don't think I ever thought of any other vocation. My first published work was in fanzines in the early 70s. My first pro work was in three issues of the regrettable GASM, a cheesy Heavy Metal knock-off. This would have been 1977. EVANGELINE, my first real comic work was published in '84.

BW: I've read elsewhere that you were first published in 1984 — when did you feel you'd really come into your own as a comic scribe?

Chuck: I don't really think it's up to me to decide when I came into my own. But there was never a time I felt uncomfortable with this medium. I always felt I had a handle on it. It's my thing. My only area of expertise.

BW: What projects are you most proud of?

Chuck: PUNISHER WAR ZONE 1-6, WINTERWORLD, BATMAN: THE DEVIL'S ADVOCATE and THE 'NAM #66. And there's been a lot more I thought were pretty good. Nightwing 1-12 are pretty strong.

BW: Do you have a dream project? A dream team? Or have you been able to do your dream project already & did it turn out as you'd hoped?

Chuck: I'd love to do either the LONE RANGER or the FANTASTIC FOUR someday. My artist for the Ranger would be Eduardo Baretto. My choice for the FF would be Graham Nolan with Tom Pamer inking. I've been very blessed to do a lot of dream projects. I did a pirate Batman story (DETECTIVE ANNUAL #7) and a Man-Bat origin both with Quique Alcatena that turned out very nice. I'm currently working on SUPERMAN/ALIENS 2 with Jon Bogdanove and Kevin Nowlan and that's a blast. And I got to do BATMAN/PREDATOR III with Rodolfo and that's a project I campaigned for. And it was a pip. And any Batman or Robin story is a dream project 'cause I never thought I'd ever get to work on those characters.

BW: It's hard to believe that when "One Man's Hell" came out, Nightwing hadn't started up yet and Gary Frank had yet to pencil Supergirl. Now both of those books have reached their 30's and Birds of Prey is one issue away from it's first anniversary. Did you forsee the monthly potential of the Birds way back then?

Chuck: I thought if DC stuck by the book we could build an audience. But I was very surprised by the reaction to that first special. We were kind of aiming at the monthly thing but understood that the book defied conventional wisdom for what sells a comic. It featured female leads who weren't violent sex objects, they kept their clothes on and one is in a wheelchair and never leaves her room. But I thought the quirky mix of Dinah and Babs might fly and the densely packed stories would convince folks to stay if they gave it a try.

BW: I haven't noticed other embryo team books starting out quite like Birds of Prey did. Was the series of one-shots plus the Manhunt mini unusual and did it surprise you?

Chuck: We were feeling around for an audience. MANHUNT was a last minute deal when DC needed some extra material one month to fill a space left by some cancelled books and I was asked to come up with a mini series. I threw out a few ideas and they bought MANHUNT.

BW: I've called Jordan Gorfinkle the Father of the Birds of Prey, and he's written the only non-Chuck Birds of Prey story published so far. How involved was he with the storylines — how much was his "vision" early on and how much yours?

Chuck: Jordan's style is to throw an idea at you, usually a very complex one, and then it's your job to make it work. Then he monkeys with the finished project until you slap his hands and make him stop. :>)

BW: Did Gary Frank have any input? (Did he design Dinah's costume?)

Chuck: Gary Frank did design Dinah's new costume (I believe) but it could have been Brian Stelfreeze. I forget.

BW: In "One Man's Hell," Dinah is obviously going through a very rough time before Oracle "rescues" her. How soon after Oliver's death is this supposed to have taken place?

Chuck: In comics time probably only a few months.

BW: What was up with nobody remembering to call Dinah until AFTER the wake in Green Arrow #101? And Guy Gardner was the first one it occurred to? Whuh?

Chuck: There was a lot of confusion in that story 'cause of continuity with other books. Wonder Woman was to play a big part in that story. I wrote a scene where she's the one who goes to see Dinah to break the news. It was a cool scene. But Wonder Woman was on Apokolips or in New Jersey or something and we had to write her out of the book. A cryin' shame.

BW: All right, please settle the question! It seems James Robinson started calling Dinah Drake Lance "Diana" in his Golden Age and Starman books, and she is called Diana in the bios in the back of "One Man's Hell;" however, in JLA: Year One she's back to being Dinah. What is Dinah Drake's official, post-Crisis name?!

Chuck: [Black Canary II's] name is Dinah Lance. Diana Drake-Lance is her mom. Larry Lance Gotham P.I. is her dad.

BW: JLA: Year One just preceded the monthly BOP series. Did it influence your take on Canary at all? How do you see Canary's place in the DCU?

Chuck: Considering that I just read JLA: Year One last week I'd have to say it didn't play a big part in BOP's monthly. Dinah is one badass martial arts babe. She's a senior partner in the superhero biz. She's probably considered a lightweight by those who haven't fought alongside her.

BW: Following that up, Since she was portrayed as being a trendsetter and media star in JLA: Year One (a realistic notion), and was a long-time, visible member of the Justice League, why is she so rarely recognized by her opponents?

Chuck: I never make an issue out of whether or not folks recognize her. And, considering the nature of celebrity, there's no reason to believe she'd still have a high recognizablity quotient. A buddy of mine was in conversation with a woman once for fifteen minutes and didn't realize she was the current Miss America who'd only gained the crown the week before!

BW: The scene between Jason Bard & Dinah in BOP #2 apparently alludes to Dinah's torture in "The Longbow Hunters." You've also written the strongest and most confident Canary I've ever seen (most notably the scene in BOP #6 where she takes down the Ravens not to mention the opening splash page in ish #9). On the other hand, in "One Man's Hell" she sort of fell apart after her first fight with Lynx and had to be bullied back into action by Oracle. What's your take on her character? Who is Black Canary?

Chuck: She's never gonna forget the traumas she lived through in LONGBOW HUNTERS. But she's no weakling. She can get past it if not over it. But her friendship with Babs has gone a long way toward rebuilding her confidence. In "One Man's Hell" she was dealing with the collapse of her life and the death of Ollie. She really needed someone to slap her back to reality and Oracle was just the ticket.

BW: Is it generally known that Oracle was Batgirl? This seems to be implied in "One Man's Hell" but in BOP #4, Oracle is shocked when Dinah refers to her as "sort of Batgirl."

Chuck: It is NOT generally known. Dinah certainly does not know the two are the same even though she had an adventure with Batgirl once. (a tale yet to be told)

BW: Dinah and Huntress behaved as if they'd never met in spite of events in BC's solo book. You seem to take past events in the characters' lives into consideration, so are you ignoring the Black Canary solo monthly?

Chuck: I was told to ignore it. It had miserable sales and is considered to be out of continuity.

BW: And Black Canary fans everywhere cheer! But referring again to the bio info in the back of "One Man's Hell," Barbara Gordon's term as a congressperson is cited though it occurred pre-Crisis and has never been rewritten post. Last year's Legends of the DCU two-parter ("Folie a Deux") established her Batgirl beginnings as taking place between the end of her high school years and during the start of her college years. DCU time is notably screwy, but just how old is Babs supposed to be to have accomplished everything she's still supposed to have done in such a short time period? How do you see her in the DC Universe & what's your take on her character?

Chuck: If we take out the congresswoman deal (it just doesn't fit the "ten year" continuity and would put Barbara closer to forty than to twenty as she would have to be 30 years old to serve in the House.) it all works pretty good and Babs is still in her twenties.

BW: Dinah was raised by detectives and was surrounded by and trained by JSAers during her youth. So just how good is she?

Chuck: Dinah is VERY good. She could give Shiva a good workout and can beat the snot out of most the DCU's kung phooey guys.

BW: On the detective angle, Babs is considered a great detective by Batman — she knows who Tim Drake is, doesn't she. She's just pretending not to so she can tease him, right?

Chuck: Babs doesn't know Tim's secret. She could figure it out in a heartbeat but would rather he tell her himself. Also, she's enjoying the verbal fencing.

BW: Is it the general Bat-arrogance seeping into Nightwing & Oracle's attitudes that they both seem to underrate Canary's prominence in the vigilante pantheon? Or has her star simply fallen that far? (Nightwing refers to her being good enough to figure out who he is based on her association with Oracle rather than on her own rep & Oracle — especially early on — bossed her around like she was new at the heroing biz).

Chuck: Canary is great when there's a crisis but Babs rightly characterized hers as not a self-starter and bit unfocused in her private life. DInah was without a goal or direction in her life and Babs provides that (along with a generous income and travel budget). Barbara knows that Dinah needs to be reminded of the mission goals now and then. But she knows Dinah is a top-flight talent. That's why Babs recruited her.

BW: Since you're writing their "home" book, how much influence do you have over what other writers do with Babs & Dinah?

Chuck: Virtually none. It's up to that writer to have the courtesy to call me if he has a question. If he doesn't there's not much I can do. I can only pray that the editors would put the brakes on any MAJOR continuity gaffes. But sometimes prayers aren't answered in the way we wish.

BW: Following up, there's a nasty rumor that Something Big/Bad Will Happen to Oracle in JLA — true/false/no comment/wouldn't have a long-term affect even if true?

Chuck: I don't listen to rumors and this one has not been confirmed for me. There was talk over a year ago about these revelations and I was told they were quashed.

BW: Both the Birds are on superteams — in fact, all of the major characters you write are on superteams in other books — does this cause you any story problems? Any benefits?

Chuck: I kind of ignore all that 'cause I have a book to build. You can just assume they perform their team functions between issues. I don't burden them and they won't (hopefully) burden me. I assume that the readers of my books aren't buying every book on the stands so I don't reference them. And if they are following the team books they don't need a re-cap of those books in my title.

BW: The Batbooks are almost super- (or meta-) hero free, and you've been consistent in your discouragement of various fans' hopes that the Titans or Young Justice will show up in Nightwing and Robin respectively. But Birds of Prey has veered over into that territory with Joe Gardner & Superman making appearances, and it appears to be heading even deeper into that terrain with the announcement of a journey to Apokolips & the addition of Powergirl to the lineup. What's up with that?

Chuck: BOP is my expansion book. I can go anywhere in the DCU I want to owing to the fact that Black Canary and Oracle travel in "super" circles. So I'm gonna take advantage of that 'cause I love the DCU and want to have those characters in my book. It also shows that I'm not just a Batman writer. Basically I'm making my own rules on this book.

BW: Any chance the JSA or JLA and/or members of those teams will guest in the book since the meta-Pandora's box has been opened?

Chuck: I have SOOOOOO many plans for BOP that there's no room for a JSA guest spot at the moment. But that could change in a nonce if I suddenly decide to throw Wildcat or someone like that into an already planned story.

BW: I have to say that I think Birds of Prey #8 was and is one of the best comics I've ever read (or seen, for that matter). Did having home book control over both the main characters make it easier for you to make the story what you wanted it to be?

Chuck: Oh yeah. I'm advancing both of these characters' careers so it seemed the most natural thing in the world to bring them closer.

BW: Any plans for a character issue of that sort for Dinah?

Chuck: There's a few Dinah focused stories coming. Issue #18 is one.

BW: You write three monthly books and have written as many as four in the past plus you seem to do lots of special projects all over the place. You've said you manage to do this because you work far ahead of schedule. Does this ever get you into trouble? For example, you're plainly planning a long-haul storyline revolving around Nightwing's police career and now No Man's Land has sidetracked that for several months.

Chuck: I'm past NML and hoping nothing comes up to take me off track. ONE MILLION was the biggest pain in the butt ever. It came in at the last minute and I was three issues past it and had to write last minute fill-ins and shift arcs back and forth. Thankfully there's nothing like that on the horizon. I hope I hope I hope.

BW: Why did you choose Powergirl as the new Bird? You've said she'll be a sort of "utility member." I presume this means she won't be in every story? Are there plans to add any more utility members to the team?

Chuck: I wanted Shayera, the original Hawkwoman but was shot down. I picked Powergirl 'cause there was no one using her on a regular basis. There will be additional members to the team, but the core will always be Babs and Dinah. This won't become a "group" book in the usual sense.

BW: And again I'm cheering! Who do I need to bribe to help bring about the Birds of Prey Secret Files & 80 Page Giants?

Chuck: I think they'll happen on their own.

BW: Your books have been blessed by some of the most astounding art teams working in comics. I hate to see Greg Land and Drew Geraci leave Birds of Prey even though they're heading for my other favorite book, Nightwing. Have you seen Jackson Guice's work for the Birds yet &, if so, what do you think? Also, any effusive praise you want to throw out about Land & Geraci?

Chuck: Greg and Drew MADE Birds of Prey. I could not, and would not, have written the sort of stories I did without them. Issue #8 in particular would have been impossible without them. They put across so much in the visuals that I don't need to write leaden exposition. They set the pace on this book. But I know Jackson will keep it up. He likes the book and his wife is a big fan of BOP so we have her to keep him honest. :>) I've seen issues #15 and #16 and they're great. #16 is particularly amazing as he does a lot with very little. You'll see when the issue comes out but most of the issue takes place in a very confined space and he makes it dynamic. He is DEDICATED to this book and no follow-up Charlie. Greg and Drew are a hard act to follow but Jackson is The Man!

BW: Having worked with so many fabulous artists, I think asking for your favorites would be unfair, so I won't. But! Who haven't you worked with that you'd really like to or would have liked to?

Chuck: I would still like to write something, anything, for Alex Toth. But I'd probably wet my pants and cry like a little girl and have a mental breakdown. I'd love to write something for Jerry Ordway. Jose Garcia Lopez would be another dream. I always wished that I'd had a chance to write for Wally Wood. I'd have written a kick-ass Wally story. I've often had a dream of writing a western that would be penciled by Gil Kane and inked by Russ Heath. They worked together at DELL in the 60's on two books and the results were AMAZING! But I've worked with many of the best already including lots of guys I idolized as a kid.

BW: You bring a novelistic feel to your books, what with the ongoing story arcs and subtle subplots that turn out to be very important several months down the line. That seems to be a more recent development in the comic biz. Who do you think started the trend?

Chuck: Frank Miller did a lot of that in DAREDEVIL. Before that I think that kind of thing happened mostly by accident. He'd set stuff up months in advance of its payoff.

BW: Who do you consider your biggest influences as far as your writing goes?

Chuck: Comic guys; Frank Robbins, Stan Lee and Archie Goodwin. Movies; Bob Gale, Howard Hawks, Ben Hecht, Leigh Brackett and Preston Sturges. Novels; Donald Westlake, Ed McBain. James Ellroy, P.G. Wodehouse, Edgar Rice Burroughs.

BW: Do you know when Dinah & Babs will meet yet (issue #?).

Chuck: I know but I won't say. It will be the climax of their biggest story yet. And it won't happen in any way you'd imagine!

BW: Who will be doing the BOP covers next year?

Chuck: Same system as with Greg. Brian [Stelfreeze] will do a layout. Jackson [Guice] will finish pencil it then Brian will ink it. If it ain't broke...

BW: Do you have a favorite moment in BOP so far — a panel or a scene or whatever.

Chuck: I just wrote Babs and Dinah's first face-to-face-meeting. I think that's my favorite so far. Of previously published stuff, I like the scene in BOP #8 where Babs explains to Dick why her chair doesn't have handles.

BW: Thanks very much for your time.

Chuck: This was a fun interview.

 

interview posted: 10 October 1999