As DC's co-publisher, Dan DiDio knows that the success of the company's "Rebirth" initiative relied upon returning core characters to their best-known status quo. So when faced with the challenge of adding more diversity to the line, DiDio thought that DC's approach needed to leave the company's most revered characters unmodified.
Thus the "New Age of DC Heroes" was born - including this week's launch of Sideways, a book that DiDio is co-writing himself. The new line of titles features brand new characters that were designed, according to DiDio, to fill gaps that creators and editors felt were missing from the DC Universe.
"We want to diversify in a way that feels natural and organic, rather than forcing change upon characters that people fully understand in a certain manner already," the DC co-publisher told Newsarama.
For Sideways, whose main character is a Puerto Rican teenager with new powers, DiDio is working with co-writer Justin Jordan and Puerto Rican artist Kenneth Rocafort. The story of Sideways spins out of the current event Dark Nights: Metal event. Later this year, readers will see superstar writer Grant Morrison join the writing team for Sideways as the titular hero, Derek, spends time in Metal's trippy Dark Multiverse.
"I don't think anybody can best explore the kinds of ideas that we're going to push forward in that story than Grant Morrison," DiDio said. "I would feel deficient and not doing my best job if I didn't have Grant with me really leading the way."
Newsarama talked to DiDio to find out more about Derek's powers from the Dark Multiverse, the adversaries and friends the new hero will meet during Sideways, and why DiDio uses Firestorm's history to support his belief that the "New Age" characters can stick around long-term - even if their books don't.
Newsarama: Dan, I've been hearing all kinds of things about how artists and writers have worked together to come up with these "New Age of DC Heroes" books. So how did Sideways come about?
Dan DiDio: Well, you know, Vaneta, what's funny is I was looking at a group of the series that were being created as we started to build out the "New Age" books, and what we wanted to do was play to everybody's strengths. So for me, one of the strengths that Kenneth Rocafort has is being able to draw really beautiful teenage characters - characters that you can feel are highly relatable and feel like they're a part of today's society.
So when I saw how Kenneth was able to really craft these incredible worlds with these characters, he felt like the perfect fit for the story that I wanted to tell with Sideways.
Nrama: As you mentioned, Sideways is a teen hero. We've seen a lot of versions of teen heroes before, so how does this one differentiate itself?
DiDio: Well, I think we've seen a lot of versions of every type of hero before. [Laughs]
Nrama: True, but doesn't this one play with certain elements of today's teens specifically?
DiDio: Yeah, the character plays to all the things that I love in comics, if you want to know the truth. I like the teen loner. I like the kid struggling against all odds, trying to figure out powers while trying to figure out how to fit his place in society, trying to make friends and being somewhat inept at it - but also, at the same time, trying to be a hero and not really succeeding at that either.
It's somebody you want to root for, and that's something I enjoy in fiction and wanted to bring to the book.
When we built the "New Age of Heroes" line, we really wanted to bring a full, diverse set of characters here and really touch upon a lot of characters and sensibilities that were lacking in the DCU.
And while we have the Teen Titans, we have a lot of teen characters, I like the idea of a teen loner, something that I felt was lacking in the DCU at that moment.
So we wanted to build this character out to fill that void.
Nrama: I read on a promotional piece, I think, something about Sideways that said "being a hero gave him the sense of freedom he's never experienced." Is that still true? And if so, what does it mean?
DiDio: Absolutely. It's interesting because when you're building a teen character for today, it's always intriguing for me to see how kids interact today. Their social connection is through social media or through electronic devices and other things like that.
And the ability to actually sit down and talk to you or hang out seems to be lost a little bit.
That just pushes somebody who has more of a mindset of sitting alone or sitting apart from people - it pushes them further out.
So by putting on the costume and forcing himself out of his individual bubble, I think he starts to get a sense of discovery that comes along with that and finds himself along the way.
Nrama: OK, so he gets his powers because he falls into the "Dark" during what's happening now in Metal, right?
DiDio: Yeah, right.
Nrama: Can you describe what powers he gained? Because in the preview, it looks like he's got super-strength, and we know he can go "sideways," so to speak, by creating dimensional rifts that allow him to travel through space.
DiDio: The interesting part about the first arc of stories is that we really get snapshots of his origin and the scope of his powers over the first several issues. It's not something that's laid clearly on the table at the start; it's something we sort of reveal as we go. But you'll see a couple of things that are interesting.
What happens is that, during Metal when the Challengers Mountain appears - when you think about it, a giant mountain appears in the middle of Gotham City, and naturally, just the sheer disruption and chaos that causes - a mountain appearing in the center of the city - it's something that throws everybody into complete disarray.
But when the mountain arrives, whatever created that mountain to appear creates rifts in time and space that he fell through as the mountain was arriving.
And he basically falls into a hole in one part of the city and comes out - appears moments later - but you find out over time that it's actually a lot longer than that.
So once he comes out, he's been lost for a while. His mother is frantic because she doesn't know where her son is, and ultimately because of that, it changes the dynamic of their relationship. It's a kid who's starting to basically discover himself as a 15-year-old, 16-year-old, and now, all of the sudden, he's being put under tight constraints by his mother because of the dangers of the world and she doesn't want anything to happen to him.
So it changes their relationship. And at the same time as his mother's being more constricting, he's finding that he has powers that are much more liberating.
So he has to live one life at home, and then he uses his powers as a way to express himself and to live a different way.
Nrama: I know these series were originally being marketed as spinning out of Metal - and I know some of them specifically do come out of the story, like this one - but I get the sense that the innovation behind Metal is also inspiring the creative approach to these new titles. Would you agree?
DiDio: Yeah, you know what? It's the frenetic, crazy, shoot-for-the-fences nature of Metal that I think allows us all to start reaching a little bit further and saying, is this crazy enough? Is this wild enough? And then pushing it a little bit further.
On this book, I can't express enough the importance of what Kenneth Rocafort is to this series. There is no Sideways series without Kenneth, without a doubt.
It's his creative vision.
I had a lot of ideas, and I threw him three or four lines on a series and a bunch of characters, and what came back visually just got me so excited about this project and being part of it.
It's interesting because we do everything by email because English is Kenneth's second language, but the language he speaks with the images he sends me captures all the essence of what I hope the series can be.
Nrama: Let's talk about the threats that Derek is going to come up against. We saw preview images of characters called Killspeed, the Inverse, and the Black Zero Cult. Are those friends? Adversaries?
DiDio: A little bit of each. I've got a lot of great things planned. And the fun part about doing this series is we've actually mapped out the first year, which is kind of exciting for me, because I know what's going on.
What's been great is that allows me to really pace the storytelling in a way that, I think, each individual can stand alone, be exciting but leave you with a strong enough cliffhanger that it'll bring you back the next month.
That's what we're really shooting for.
You know me; I love periodical comics. And I love the beat and the rhythm that comes with the periodical nature of our storytelling. So we've created a lot of things where it seems like we have a different character or different villain every issue, but it's all part of a bigger plot as we move forward through the year.
Nrama: Dan, you didn't address of the concepts I mentioned. Who's Killspeed?
DiDio: OK, OK. What we tried to do is we looked for characters who really challenge who he is personally and physically. If you're able to jump through space, that's why Killspeed is a good villain – it's a character that runs with the speed of sound. So all of the sudden, can I jump faster than they can run? And how do these two pair against each other? How do those two match up?
And then we have things like the Inverse, which is actually a sentient manifestation of the Dark Multiverse that starts leaking into our world. And you get a small taste of that in the second issue.
But we're also going to show that this character interacts with the DC Universe. And we'll be meeting some of the other members of the New Age of Heroes within the first few issues. And then we'll have some guest stars from the DCU that I'm really excited about, because that's when Grant Morrison comes in and gives me a hand on a couple of issues in the latter part of the year.
Nrama: Let's talk about that collaboration. You're co-writing from the start with Justin Jordan, and then, as you mentioned, Grant Morrison will be working with you two on future issues. Is this because of your time constraints, or more of a choice on your part to collaborate?
DiDio: Yeah, for me, I love the collaborative nature of comic books - interacting with other folks, getting ideas and trying to find ways to make them work. The melding of ideas and getting different perspectives. I think it rounds out the product, you know?
That's what's been great about Kenneth. He brings a visual style in a way that I didn't normally see in these characters, but I think it added so much additional life to them.
Justin Jordan is helping bring in a youthful voice and a sensibility that I think helps ground the characters that feel more useful for today.
But once the story moves into the Dark Multiverse - and the story will move into the Dark Multiverse for a period of time - that's when I really wanted to bring Grant in.
I don't think anybody can best explore the kinds of ideas that we're going to push forward in that story than Grant Morrison.
I would feel deficient and not doing my best job if I didn't have Grant with me really leading the way.
Nrama: As a publisher at DC, can you talk a little about the idea behind the "New Age of DC Heroes" that you're rolling out, with this book as one of several hitting the shelves soon?
DiDio: We're having a lot of fun. We made a lot of noise about this being artist-first. In the beginning, we really wanted to open up the visual style and sensibility.
But really, what "New Age of Heroes" is really about is returning to a lot of basics in comic book storytelling that we've sort of lost along the way - the return of secret identity; the opening up of the storytelling; the romance, intrigue, the challenges that come with being a hero and trying to negotiate that against your normal life.
And most importantly, we wanted to bring new characters in.
We want to diversify in a way that feels natural and organic, rather than forcing change upon characters that people fully understand in a certain manner already.
So we love the "New Age of DC Heroes" - I really feel like we're pushing ourselves. The hope was to create characters that were filling gaps in our line-up without ultimately replacing other characters.
I think that's what was key.
Nrama: OK, I hear what you're saying. I think I know what you're saying. So DC's not going to change Batman to a Puerto Rican person, but you're introducing Sideways and trying to make him awesome, and he just happens to be Puerto Rican. That's what I'm reading between the lines of what you said there. Right?
DiDio: What I'm saying is that we have a series of characters that people understand and recognize their interpretation and react to.
For us, we need to grow and to expand. And we haven't had a real influx of new characters in quite awhile. And this feels like the right moment to really push that out.
I'm putting on the other hat now. Writer hat comes off; co-publisher hat comes on right now. OK?
We went back with "Rebirth" and we re-established our core in a way that the fan base reacted very positively to. So we couldn't go in there and start changing things automatically after re-establishing who they were.
So this gave us the perfect chance to create new characters to help fill out that world now and fill in those blanks in the types of stories we weren't telling in that moment.
We're testing all these characters right now to see which ones work, which ones don't. But we want to make sure they become fully integrated into the DC Universe.
You know, when I look back in history - comic book history - we talk about Firestorm all the time. And Firestorm was introduced and was canceled after five issues. And then Firestorm became a back-up character in Flash, I believe it was for a period of time. And then he became a member of the Justice League. And then all of the sudden, he has his own book again and it runs for 100 issues plus. And now he's a mainstay of the DC Universe.
Our goal is to create characters and find ways to make them work, because we add value to the DCU and fill places in the DC Universe that helps make it a more diverse and expansive place.
Nrama: I think most fans love when you try new stuff like this.
DiDio: You know, we're trying new stuff every day. But it makes sense to do it inside the universe where we have the support of the DC Universe to elevate these characters and draw attention to them.