DOUG MAHNKE Introduces 1st Arab-American GREEN LANTERN

Green Lantern #18

In this week's Green Lantern #0, comic book readers are being introduced to the first Arab-American Green Lantern, Simon Baz.

The issue doesn't gloss over Baz's Arab-American heritage, but instead makes it part of the character's origin story. As the story of Green Lantern #0 opens, Baz's parents are Muslim, and when he was young, he was personally affected by the tragedy of the 9/11 attacks.

Artist Dough Mahnke designed the new DC character and drew the issue where he's introduced. Working with his Green Lantern co-creator Geoff Johns, the DC chief creative officer who is himself an Arab-American, Mahnke had to not only portray the family's experience with 9/11, but also had to show a later scene where Baz is threatened with torture because he's a suspected terrorist.

Mahnke told Newsarama he knew the importance of the scenes in Green Lantern #0, because they deal with the experience of being an Arab-American post-9/11. But he also emphasized that although the issues have potential controversy surrounding them, they are approached instead as part of a very human story of a character that is being weaved into the Green Lantern mythology.

The veteran artist is no stranger to getting attention for his stories. He drew The Mask, which was turned into films and animated series, and he's had two of his more controversial comic stories turned into animated DVDs by DC: Batman: Under the Red Hood, based on the return of a once-dead Robin in Batman, and Superman vs. The Elite, based on the critically acclaimed one-issue story in Action Comics #775.

Mahnke is also one of the few artists who stayed on the exact same comic book when DC rebooted its universe last year, having drawn Green Lantern since 2009.

Newsarama talked to Mahnke about Green Lantern #0 and his approach to the characters and concepts surrounding the introduction of Simon Baz.

Newsarama: Doug, on the very first page of this comic, it becomes clear that this issue isn't shying away from tough, emotional subjects. And it delivers with this heart-wrenching scene where Baz is assumed to be a terrorist. When you first heard what was going to happen to this character in this issue, what was your response? When you realized what Geoff was doing with this issue, what did you think of it?

Doug Mahnke: I had been prepared by Geoff for what the story was about. In fact, I was highly anticipating the script. I was very curious as to how it was going to read and what I was going to end up with.

 

Just reading that first page of the script, you know... we're talking about a hugely emotionally charged moment in our history. But also, I like that the first thing we get to portray is just how emotional and shocking and jarring it is for Simon Baz and his family.

You know, we only get one page to do it. It would have been nice if we could have come up with more. But the truth is, I think the way we move from that page to the next page, it gives a very clear look into that perspective. Even as simply as we did it, even in the fact that you don't even hear anything from his parents but the shock of what has happened, the horror of this. But there's this underlying sense that these characters are going, "things will never be the same for us."

That's what we get to see through Baz over page 2, and how that builds his character.

It's a tough story to tell, and I was curious as to how we could do it in a sensitive fashion, and yet get the point across.

I got the script, I sat down, and I didn't do those pages first. I had laid them out, but I really wanted to wait to do those first two pages. I did a lot of other pages first. Because I wanted to put some thought into pages 1 and 2.

As simple as the first page looks, I really wanted it to be right.

You can only spend so much time on any moment in a comic book before you have to say, "OK, well, I have to send this out." But I did wait until I was basically done with everything else before I finally put the final touches on those pages and was satisfied with them.

You know, even trying to get the look on those faces, and how Baz looks over his shoulder quizzically at his parents. And they're the ones who it's really dawning on as to what this means. And especially what they can conceive is coming, for them as people and as Americans.

Nrama: The first page, because there's no dialogue, relied completely on you.

Mahnke: Yeah, there's not a lot said. It's all visual, emotional beats.

It's tough because you want to draw... for example, the page where they're washing the walls, the graphitti, off of the Islamic Center, as I was working on the art I really wished I could pull into Baz and show his face. But then I can't show as effectively what it is they're doing.

I wanted to get that emotion. So I had to rely on people empathetically realizing what he's going through.

You have to cut your losses as far as that stuff is concerned. The faraway shot was just a more appropriate panel.

 

And the second one was pretty simple, where he was in that struggle. That was pretty simple. It's a struggle he probably went through quite a bit.

Nrama: How did you approach the scene where Baz was about to be tortured? It's a horrific prospect to see someone being wrongly targeted that way. Did you have to be careful how you approached that visually?

Mahnke: Yeah! Yeah! Actually, I was very careful. I wanted to be sensitive, you know? As far as it is understood, misunderstood, or heated as an issue, this is a moment within a story. And I wanted to do it well for the story and yet be sensitive to that. The story ends up being the driver of that, especially once the dialogue is in and everything is finished.

I really turned it over in my mind a lot: "How can I do this best?" Even down to the point where, picking up references for this scene, there aren't any that exist exactly. You know? So I had a concept, and I had to think, you know what? You have to just eventually not worry about whether this is wholly accurate. The point is, we're telling a story and conveying what is going to happen as Baz is being set up for torture.

And at the same time, I'm hoping that everybody sees the story for what it is, and not misjudging what is happening there.

Do you understand what I mean? People can take offense anywhere in this book if they're thinking about it in a wrong-headed way.

We have a character who is under a horrible condition, wrongfully accused, and yeah, that has happened.

Thankfully, in our little world, Baz gets to escape.

Nrama: Did you design Baz and his costume when he becomes Green Lantern?

Mahnke: Yeah, the costume is by me, and I designed the character before ever reading the script, although I knew who the character was planned to be.

For the costume, they asked for something different, and I immediately went to the drawing board. But originally, there was very little input beyond just, "Make him look different from any other Green Lantern."

So I got to work. And I still have the sketch I was working on when I was sitting down initially to do it, and then when I got a bunch of it worked up, I got an email with more direction. Geoff threw some parameters out there. So it was back to the drawing board, and I took what I'd done and threw it on the floor. And I got to work.

 

The costume we ended up with is nice and tight. It's a more streamlined costume. The last thing an artist enjoys doing is creating something that they discover, "Aw, this is a lot of work to draw issue to issue." But we ended up with a costume I'm happy with. And Geoff liked it and everyone else was happy with it.

Nrama: It did end up looking different from other costumes, particularly the way you have his head mostly covered by his mask and the domination of black in the colors. Can you describe why you chose the costume's look?

Mahnke: When we look at the basic template of all the other characters, when you want to step away, you realize there really is a lot more you can interpret beyond just the way we routinely draw Green Lanterns.

To really make Baz stand out, I liked the idea of having as much black as possible on his costume, like through the legs, because it has practicality to it from Baz's point of view.

I thought about how he would perceive himself, because I think that's part of what goes into making a Green Lantern costume. So thinking about this character, I think it makes sense for him, for example, that he has tread on his boots.

But the black fits him because he can be more invisible when he wants to be. And I think that fits his personality.

He's a Green Lantern, so we also have the green through the shoulders. And then I played around a lot with the symbol in the middle, because I thought do we always have to do it the same way? Yeah, the Lantern symbol's in there, but I actually spent some time — more than I would have thought — trying to figure out the center and the black. It doesn't necessarily have a meaning. It's just design work as I sit there and noodle around and try to come up with something different that I can actually draw again and again.

There are also things that Geoff had picked out. He wanted the sleeves short, exposing some of his arms. Clearly, he wanted to be able to see his tattoo. I played around with one long sleeve, but I thought that was a lot like Black Hand. So I thought, well, maybe that's not the best idea. So I went with symmetrical short sleeves.

And then the fact that he pulls a mask down over his face to hide himself. He doesn't want the world to know that he's there. I think it has less to do with being a Green Lantern than he's just trying not to be seen.

Of course, we haven't seen that part yet.

Nrama: Well, I think it was made pretty clear, in what we learned about his brother-in-law's death and Baz's involvement, that he's carrying some shame there.

Mahnke: Yeah.

Nrama: The way you drew his facial expressions and his overall appearance, complete with this shaved eyebrow, established that he's got an edge to him, which I assume we'll learn more about, particularly with that gun in his hand on the front page. When you were first reading about the Baz and his personality traits, what were your thoughts on drawing the character as a person?

Mahnke: I wanted a face and demeanor that could be expressive as a character, but that also communicated some of what he's gone through. I didn't want him to appear to be mean or overly aloof or way too tough. In other words full of himself. But I wanted a character who had developed into this person because of his surroundings and who he was.

 

It came across in the story that there was a range of emotion on the character, opening itself up to a lot of human feeling. Through a lot of the Green Lantern stories, drawing Sinestro and Hal for instance, you end up with these kind of expressions that are limited. And this is a human story, especially this issue #0. So considering a character like this and designing him — I really enjoyed doing it.

I've always enjoyed when I have to go through a somewhat wider range of emotion for a character. If that's coming across in the design and how you guys are seeing it, I guess I did a good job.

Nrama: We've seen the Green Lantern Annual, so we're aware that there's this scary, brain-dead, heartless Third Army coming to assimilate people, so Baz was rescued from the torture scene, but with the events of the Annual heating up, things aren't going to go well for him, are they?

Mahnke: Yeah, and the funny thing is, here was go from this #0 issue with all of this human story to the Third Army story. Although, believe me, there's more human story in [issue #13]; we don't just get to catapult Baz into outer space to go fight it out, or elsewhere on earth yet. We have to warm this guy up a little bit, but things do open up soon.

We got Baz for a purpose. I don't know everything [Geoff is] doing yet. But Baz what I do know is that Baz gets to juggle these two things: this emotional issue and then what comes after it.

Baz will eventually work his way into the Third Army conflict, and he'll have to put these other things aside. But it will always be a part of Baz.

Is he ever going to be Hal Jordan? I don't think Geoff has him set up to be. So he's got to have some special qualities, things that Geoff needs to move the stories forward.

Nrama: We've talked before about the things you like to draw and how much you enjoyed the Black Lanterns. As we get closer to the "Rise of the Third Army" story, it sounds like you might be portraying some more horror-type scene.

Mahnke: Yeah, you know how I hate drawing horror, and I'm terrible at it. [Laughs.] No, I'm just the opposite.

Of course I didn't conceive the Third Army characters. I didn't draw what we've seen so far. [note: see our interview with Ethan Van Sciver to learn more about the Third Army design ]

Right now, I'm drawing the Third Army characters for the first time. I'm looking forward to it. And like you know, I do like stuff like this. I'm looking forward to putting my own stamp on what these creatures are like.

Clearly these guys aren't being pulled out of the box just to be put back in. There's more coming. And the more I get to draw weird monsters, the better it is for me.

It's weird because I'm not a horror guy. If I sit down and watch a movie, believe me, it's not a horror film. But when it's time to sit down and draw and have some fun and draw some horror? Yeah, that's when work becomes play.

Nrama: You've been keeping up pretty well with the demands of the tight schedule DC has for the New 52, with only one fill-in issue this year. Has it been tough to do that?

Mahnke: Yeah, my version of working within the guidelines of the new schedule is to skip sleep. That's what I do.

 

I mean it is — it's a tight schedule. There was a valiant attempt to gain some ground with that one fill-in. The goal was to pick up a couple weeks lead time, so that everyone else other than me has more time to do this book. I wish we had a six-month lead time, but we don't. It's always a tight schedule.

Nrama: Unlike most of the people who are drawing comics for the New 52, you've been on this title for awhile.

Mahnke: I'm into my fourth year on Green Lantern. It's gone by so fast. I came on with issue #43 and jumped right into "Blackest Night" [tie-in issues of Green Lantern] and a tough schedule. So I've basically been working hand-to-fist for over three years now. I'm still alive. And it's just been a blur.

I definitely am trying to put the best work I can on Green Lantern within the time that I have, and to do the best visuals I can and give the fans as much as possible. If I'm succeeding, I'm very happy about it.

When I reflect on my first issues, when I was working on "Blackest Night," and it was such a scheduling nightmare. There were way too many inkers and not enough time to finish. And I felt like some of it didn't look good to me. But I think we've gotten past that to the point where books look solid.

I'm very pleased with how everything looks these days. And I hope everyone else is.

Nrama: Do you plan to be on Green Lantern for awhile? Are you still enjoying it?

Mahnke: I have no reason to leave. And frankly, I'm so busy, I can't even conceive of it. And I love what I'm doing with Geoff. I would never walk away from that. I'd be a fool.

It's going great. I live under an intense schedule that keeps me right there, in the world of Green Lantern. In the best scenario, I could sit down and draw Green Lantern the rest of my life.

But you never know what the future is. I've been at DC for a long time, and I've worked on quite a few books, a variety of projects. And I know I'm not going to spend the next 15 years working on Green Lantern. But it's great for now. And I'm really proud of the stuff I've done with Geoff.

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