Dennis Hallum has been working in comic books for over a decade, but you probably don't know who he is - or only recently learned. Why? For the past decade-plus, he's gone by the moniker Dennos Hopeless... but he's now leaving "Hopeless" behind.
"I spent a lot of years doing work-for-hire and I think my career has been mostly backwards," Hallum told Newsarama. "I did a tiny little bit of creator-owned then a whole bunch of Marvel work and now seven or eight years later, I’m focusing again on creator-owned and a bunch of personal stuff came up. I got divorced and it just seemed like this pen name I created when I was a child didn’t really fit me anymore."
Framing it as a new chapter in his life, Dennis Hallum has re-introduced himself with this year's creator-owned series Sea of Stars, and is returning to Marvel with their Gamerverse Spider-Man titles. And Hallum, who has primarily worked on the Marvel side of the Big Two split, recently wrote The Infected: Scarab tying into DC's "Year of the Villain" event.
As Hallum enters this new chapter in his life, Newsarama spoke with him about his humble beginnings in comic books, how stolen comics helped him break in, and is unusual way of breaking into writing for Marvel.
Newsarama: So, Dennis, you’re at a coffee shop today, what are you working on?
Dennis Hallum: I’m working on another revision of Spider-Man: Gamerverse Black Cat Strikes, the second issue. I am also doing panel breaks for Cosmic Ghost Rider #3.
Nrama: You’re from Missouri, what was the comic scene like growing up in that area?
Hallum: I have no idea. [Laughs]
I got into comics when I was 10 or 11 because my dad used to go pilfer through barns where they restored and sold old cars and he would break into people’s barns and make an offer if he saw something he liked. Incidentally, one time he found a box of old comics and stole it and gave it to me. So, I had those comics and then I bought comics because they had a fan club out here, you know, 10 DC comics for half-price.
I never made it into a comic shop til college.
I never went to a comic convention, I never really knew anything about the scene until I was trying to write them. It was always a hobby but I knew next to nothing about it.
Nrama: Okay, hold up. Do you mean literally breaking into barns?
Hallum: Well barns aren’t really locked. The barns I’m talking about are maybe there’s not a farm anymore so people just use it to store things. He found cars that way. Like, somebody’s son had a Camaro in high school and then went into the service and died or got married, and just left it there for 25, 30 years and my dad would go talk to people out of them. Just go up and be like “I’ll give you $2,000 for that right now” and he would get deals that way or just trespass and get nothing. Maybe he stole stuff all the time, I don’t know, but I do know he stole some comic books because he definitely didn’t pay for them.
Nrama: So we’ve established you didn’t go into a comic shop til college, when you also worked at one?
Hallum: That was one of my first jobs out of college. I got a creative writing degree and a radio/tv/film degree and none of those I found are useful when finding a job. I was working at Best Buy as a loss prevention specialist, which just meant I said “welcome to Best Buy” as they walked into the door and wanted to kill myself, but then a new shop opened up and got a job there despite the fact I was way too old to be making $6 an hour.
Nrama: What was the name of it?
Hallum: Oh, it’s still there. Pulp Fiction Comics and Games. I got $6 an hour and $2 store credit.
Nrama: What did you buy with your plentiful bounty?
Hallum: So many comic books! At one point I was at 80 titles a month because I got fired from Best Buy, the only job I’ve ever been fired from, and I went full-time at the comic shop. So I was making no money and getting way too much store credit. That’s when Identity Crisis had just come out and Marvel and DC’s event culture was in this renaissance and kicking off. So I read every single tie-in to an event from Civil War on. Just massive stacks of comics by my bed for years!
Nrama: About 12 years ago, you and Kevin Mellon, who now works on Archer, came up with GearHead. What do you remember about your writing process back then?
Hallum: We just wanted desperately to get something published. Kevin had gone to the Kubert School and he knew way more about the process of making comics than I did. The first thing we did was this one-shot about a love story in a tattoo parlor we pitched around that nobody was interested because I was essentially writing a short film and had Kevin draw people walking.
So we did that and a little project called Videophile about a guy that breaks into places and uses closed circuit television to steal stuff. The sample pages were so boring that when we put them online on PencilJack, they got destroyed so we never really pitched that one.
Then when we were doing that, Kevin started to get some interest doing little shorts and stuff and while he was getting paid next to nothing, we thought it would be fun to do GearHead as this 12-issue story - a superhero parody, and serious mixed with Mad Max...with zombies.
We pitched that around and was told “no” so many times that when we got the approval from Arcana, Sean O’Reilly’s email was so short and we didn’t know...I mean, he seemed like it liked it but we didn’t see the contract attached to the bottom of the email so that was his way of saying yes without saying yes.
We were super excited about it, too. We had no idea what we were doing. We wanted to publish a 12-issue mini series having nothing published before. I think the publisher didn’t pay attention and said, "Oh, you can do four."
Nrama: When did you realize you had to learn to write comics then?
Hallum: So, Kevin was finishing the first issue of GearHead and I lettered it because we didn’t have any money. I got it all lettered, we were really excited about it and I read the first draft of the first issue and it was bad! I had worked in a comic shop, I had read comics and I was a very opinionated comic reader at the time, but I read it and was like “this isn’t good”. The main character doesn’t have a voice. It’s boring. So if you go back and read GearHead #1 and #2, I leaned a lot more into my strengths because I had to think about what people actually want to read and plotting things so interesting things happen.
GearHead taught me to lean into what I’m good at and make sure the main character is just as interesting as the side characters so the readers want to actually follow the protagonist. Then with everything that followed, my skills got better and I could tell when something was working and not. “This sucks, let’s fix that next time."
It’s frustrating, but I think the process of me making a new first issue of something and go nowhere, I would try and hone in on some writing deficiencies that were there before. That was pretty much my process.
Nrama: Let’s jump ahead a couple more years to 2011. You have LoveSTRUCK with Kevin at Image and you started working at Marvel. What was it like when you finally had your first Big Two book? Did you have confidence in your work or did you feel out of place?
Hallum: Yeah, I was working at this sign shop and I had written most of LoveSTRUCK right after GearHead. Kevin got hired to hired to do other stuff so he was picking away at LoveSTRUCK over the course of those years and we were going to do it at a publisher, but they went under before we could. So we had this completed thing that took three years to make and there was nowhere to put it.
We then sent it to Image and they put us on the schedule, but at that point I was frustrated because I had done 12 first issues with artists and they all fell apart. I had this thing with Skottie Young, I had this thing with Mike Norton which eventually became The Answer, all of these things that went nowhere. When you’re in your late 20s, three-four years feels like an eternity and I didn’t know if this was even going to happen. I spend all my free time doing this and nothing really to show for it. So I took a bunch of those projects, the ones that were drawn anyways, and put together a sample packet with fake publication dates and made fake logos and sent it to Marvel and DC editors spitting into the wind because I was so frustrated.
This was even before Kevin even finished LoveSTRUCK but it was so happened that moved over to Image that an editor actually picked up one of those packets and Axel Alonso read it and offered me a gig.
Nrama: Then-Editor-in-Chief of Marvel Comics.
Hallum: I had never been paid for anything and I get a call from Marvel asking me if I wanted to pitch some stuff. I was very calm and cool on the phone but then went outside and did a backflip happy dance and then came back in and emailed Alejandro Arbona, sending in characters I was interested in. Three or four days later, they get back to me and that’s how I got the Legion of Monsters series. That was my first paid work at Marvel and that came out months within LoveSTRUCK coming out.
It was a lot of waiting and having nobody care to all of a sudden have an Image book and doing Marvel pitches.
Nrama: I think you had X-Men: Season One around this time, too.
Hallum: X-Men: Season One happened because I was working on Legion of Monsters and that was going well and somebody, I never found out who, was supposed to do X-Men: Season One but they dropped it. Jamie McKelvie was already attached and did designs for it. Alejandro was going to be editing it and liked working with me and asked me to pitch it.
Nobody ever explained that line [of books] to me so I was going out there and trying to do new things and they were like "No, this is exactly what happens in X-Men #1 but it takes place now." So I had no idea what I was doing, didn’t think I would get that job but I ended up doing those two books just a few months at Marvel.
Nrama: The X-Men have sort of followed you around because you did All-New X-Men and a Jean Grey ongoing. Were they ever really on your goal list?
Hallum: I think they just sort of happened. I did Season One with a non-X-Men editor, then Nick Lowe; an actual X-editor read that and he had never read any of my indie stuff because, you know, nobody ever read my indie stuff, and liked what I was doing with that so I got a change to pitch on Cable and X-Force. Then I just sort of got into that office...which is also how I got into the Spider-books because when Nick moved over there, that’s when I got Spider-Woman.
The way it’s worked for me at Marvel was an editor that liked you would move into an office and those are the pitched you’d do but I still had no idea what I was doing. I lied my way to get into the door and had to learn on the fly and was super late because I had no idea how to hit a deadline because I still had a day job.
Nrama: Moving to more recent times, this past year you dropped the “Hopeless” moniker and started going back your real last name, "Hallum." We’ve talked a bit about this in-person and how you came up with it, but you dropping it really signified something for you. Can you talk a bit about that?
Hallum: Yeah. "Hopeless" is a pen name I came up with when I was 23, 24 because I wanted a rockstar writer name. I wanted to be a writer and this was before the years of toiling and I did all those pitches and nobody was paying attention and had the name "Hopeless" and that’s how I got in at Marvel. I spent a lot of years doing work-for-hire and I think my career has been mostly backwards where I did a tiny little bit of creator-owned then a whole bunch of Marvel work and now seven or eight years later, I’m focusing again on creator-owned and a bunch of personal stuff came up. I got divorced and it just seemed like this pen name I created when I was a child didn’t really fit me anymore.
I had an opportunity with Sea of Stars coming out, my first real big creator-owned book in a really long time, to put my real name on it and try and establish that as a thing. Jason Aaron is a big name and we had his name on the cover and my fans would find it one way or the other. So it seemed like a good opportunity to let it go. At the same time, I had talked to Ricky Purdin at Marvel about rebranding myself there, so we keep “Hopeless” on the books at Marvel so my fans can find me where we’re also starting to establish my real name as well.
I can be myself for the first time.
Nrama: How do you feel about “being yourself” finally?
Hallum: Yeah I mean it’s weird. I have some friends that still call me “Hopeless” and actually have some friends that never knew my real name. So it’s a little bit strange. And I have no problem being called "Hopeless" either, it’s fine. If somebody wanted to credit me on something and called me "Hopeless," it would be okay. There are still reviewers who have no idea who I am for Sea of Stars because Dennis Hallum is not a name they’ve heard so there are downsides to messing with my brand. But it is nice to use my real name, and start a new chapter? I guess that what it really feels like.
Nrama: You’re a single dad in comics and that’s not something you hear much about. Do you and your boys do local comic shows or is that not their thing?
Hallum: They have been...okay, so, I have a weird relationship with comic book shows. I am bad at staying at my table and wandering off. I love meeting fans and hanging out with other creators and I love going, but I got into comics to avoid being a salesman. So being behind a table trying to sell my books is sort of torturous so I wander away.
My kids just turned five the other day and that is not a great age to not have a home base so it’s just kinda better for them to go for just a bit. I see people with slightly older children at conventions and I can see that in the future. They love Spider-Man and Batman and think they’re super cool, but for now they have no idea what I do or how it relates to those things and would be bored to tears if I tried to make them sit at a convention center for eight hours.
Nrama: Do you think it’s difficult being a single dad in comics?
Hallum: I mean, no more difficult than being a single dad at bathtime with two twins. I don’t know, I have my kids half the time, so when I do have my kids my life is totally full and exhausting while also enjoying the quiet fun parenting moment, and the week I don’t see them, I’m 25 again. So the challenge for me is when I don’t have my kids is to get extra work done so when I do have them, I can lean extra into them.
The challenging thing about it is the challenging thing about this job, which for me, is time management. If I can just sit down at 8 AM and write til 5 every day, I would be very prolific, but add to that two kids that get sick and have other needs or three days before Halloween don’t want to be the costume that I purchased and now have to go find a new one. [Laughs]
Nrama: What did they not want to be?
Hallum: Well Dash is going to be Pikachu and is thrilled about it, but Cullen told me he wanted to be Frankenstein’s Monster and now he decided to be a bat. So now he has this Frankenstein costume that he hates and I had to find a bat costume.
Nrama: You know, everybody for the most part when they get into comic writing want to land a Big Two book, but you’ve kinda steered away from doing a ton of DC work. Is there a character you’d really like to take a crack at?
Hallum: Before I started I working at Marvel, I would have said Guy Gardner, because Guy Gardner was my favorite character. I loved Justice League International and loved Guy for whatever reason, but I have found the characters I love the most are the ones I’m not necessarily the best at writing the most. So there are lot of characters I’d love to take a crack at, but there’s not a holy grail.
I mean, I’ve done some DC work. I did a Nightwing issue right before where Dick Grayson got shot in the head and stopped being Nightwing. The process of making the book took so long though, that by the time it got done, it didn’t even get drawn by the way, because it no longer made sense because of the continuity. [Laughs] So I got paid to write Nightwing once.
I just recently did the Blue Beetle Infected crossover --
Nrama: The Infected - Scarab #1.
Hallum: So that was my first published DC work.
Nrama: We touched on Sea of Stars a little bit but how would you describe the co-writing process with Jason Aaron because you’re usually doing solo work?
Hallum: It’s way different from what I’ve done in the past. I’ve co-written some stuff at Marvel but like, when I’ve done stuff with Cullen Bunn, we have a conversation, he does a loose plot, then I take the loose plot and do the dialog, full script pass, then he does an edit. So it’s very much just passing the pages back and forth, which plays to our strength.
Jason and I don’t work that way at all. We have a conversation about what is going to happen in the arc, and issue two, then I get 10, 11 pages and he gets 10,11 pages and we focus on our characters. So Jason writes the little boy and I write Gil, the dad and until issue 5, after the first few pages of the first issues, those characters don’t interact directly with one another because it’s a lost in space book. So when Jason turns in his pages, that’s the first time I learn what’s happening in the other half of the book.
It’s fun, but it’s also having two very distinctive tones and point of views for the two different characters. It’s almost like a jam comic with him doing his thing and me doing mine. Of course we have the brilliant art team of Stephen Green and Rico Renzi who make it work.
Nrama: I’ve had this conversation with a few other peers and pros and sometimes they mention that have no idea what’s out there to read and aren’t caught up because they’re making their own material, but would you consider yourself a comic book fan in 2019?
Hallum: I am a huge comics fan in 2019, but I’m also a fan with two five-year-olds so what I usually do is wait til everyone is raving about something then I’ll go read a bunch of it. Immortal Hulk for example, I waited until there were 20 issues of it then I sat down one night and read them. Same thing with Donny Cates' Venom. I read the first three arcs all in one sitting and that’s at Marvel where I get PDFs for free, but often I just go buy three or four trades at once and usually people are right and there aren’t a lot of misses.
This way, it makes reading comics a treat, which is not what it used to be which was read for two hours each night before bed. It’s fun, it’s nice. I spend so much of my day focusing on comics for work that if I try to do that as a hobby, I think I would start wearing spandex and trying to fly around so it’s nice to do it in big chunks occasionally.
Nrama: Lastly, you’re in your first decade of working in comics, what do you think the next one has in store? Any specific goals?
Hallum: Lots of creator-owned stuff, I think. I have written a lot of superhero books and want to try to find new stuff to say in them. I feel like I have left section of my brain untouched for that time, but Sea of Stars is scratching that itch to some degree but I think I’m going to focus on more stuff that I own, stuff in different genres and try to step out of my comfort zone.