Hero By Night (And Day): An Interview With DJ Coffman
DJ Coffman, winner of the first annual Platinum Studios Comic Book Challenge, chats with Brent Sprecher about his experience and the launch of his winning entry, Hero By Night, as an ongoing comic book.
DJ Coffman’s clean artwork—reminiscent of C.C. Beck, with shades of Wally Wood—and the incredibly detailed back-story he’s created through the Hero By Night journals, make for a truly magical experience that no fan of comic books should miss.
BRENT SPRECHER: Hi, DJ, thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions for your fans.
DJ COFFMAN: No problem.
BS: You’ve been involved with web-comics and blogging for years. What interested you the most about using the internet as a tool to tell stories?
DJ: I think it was basically getting inspired by all of the old guys—you know, from the 40’s and 50’s—what would those guys have done with the tools we have now? So, thinking about how they could have utilized, you know, instead of the newspaper newsstand that they had back then, if they could have reached out to readers directly, and I’ve always thought about that. I think I’ve been blogging since 2000 and I’ve always tried to reach out to readers in a faster, more efficient way.
BS: Do you have any suggestions for writers and artists hoping to break into the field? Do you recommend starting a web-comic first?
DJ: Oh, yeah, all of the time! Before web comics were even a culture on-line, a community on-line. It’s a great way to get your work out, but beyond that it’s a great way to build an audience quickly and have people actually follow your work. If you do a good job with one genre—say, you’re writing a humor thing and then you decide to switch or do a western or something—usually people just follow your work, so people become followers of whatever style you’re doing. So, a lot of the guys that followed my humor work moved on to the super-hero work.
BS: Would you say that your initial audience was based off of your blog community?
DJ: That was a nice kick-start. It’s kind of hard to turn those people into sales. I might have had 9,000 unique users a day, so if every one of those bought a book that would have been nice . It kick-started for me, you know; I started out rolling with a core audience.
BS: In the official press release announcing you as winner, Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, chairman of Platinum Studios, said that your passion, your enthusiasm and your pitch were instrumental in the final selection process. What did the pitch entail and how did you prepare for it?
DJ: I had the Hero By Night concept sort of on the shelf and I thought it was an idea that would be really strong if I had the opportunity to do it. But, unfortunately, at the time—that was 2003—the only companies out there doing hero stuff, you know Marvel or DC, maybe Image, new super-hero stuff, besides maybe Invincible, just weren’t being done. I saw the opportunity with Comic Book Challenge; Platinum’s a new company, (so) maybe they’ll give it a shot. I really just focused on giving it everything I had to instill that old-school flavor in that genre and to just do what the vision was in my head for Hero By Night.
BS: I read your blog about how you fashioned a Hero By Night ring to take to the pitch and I thought that was a really creative and interesting way to catch their eye.
DJ: I had messed around with Super Sculpey trying to make my own action figures years and years ago, so when I was actually doing the pitch I thought it might be nice to have something in my pocket to pull out as a prop. That worked pretty well . The polymer clay—I didn’t know this at the time—the metallic spray paint doesn’t mix well with the polymer. It will actually eat it away over time and in, probably, 50 years that ring won’t exist. I actually do think it helped to have something like a prop to impact that process. Since the story revolves around the ring, it did kind of give a nice little boost there.
BS: In the introduction to the graphic novel, you mention that the inspiration for Hero By Night was the realization that the younger generation—in this case, two of your sons—was no longer in awe of the classic comic book characters because their stories have already been told numerous times over the years and that you wanted something fresh and accessible. Do you feel like you accomplished that and how do your kids feel about Hero By Night?
DJ: Yeah, I do feel that we’re on to something. I don’t know if we’ve accomplished everything I want to do with it. I would like to see it as a broad, sweeping thing across a whole new generation of readers. And, you know, so far so good. With my own kids, I can only use them as an example so far because, obviously, they’re my kids and I don’t know if they’re lying to me saying, “Dad’s cool. He creates comic books.” But, for a long time, they didn’t really realize that their dad was writing this and creating it. They would go, “Oh, that’s neat,” and then it finally started to sink in.
BS: Are they comic book fans now?
DJ: Oh, yeah. Fortunately for them, I have a lot of older stuff, a lot of the (Marvel) Essentials collections so they’ve been reading a lot of Essential Hulk from the 60’s and, you know, whatever collections I have around here they read. But, that was part of the inspiration for creating (Hero By Night). Going out to the store and saying, “Hey, I want to pick up a Spider-Man for my kids,” and then I would hand them a Spider-Man and they just weren’t interested in what was going on; it was just too mature for them or too “talky” or there wasn’t enough going on to intrigue them about the story.
BS: Hero By Night has a very classic super-hero look. What or who were your inspirations for the design?
DJ: As far as the design goes, I kind of just worked with what I could do with my own skill set. Not style wise, but definitely Jack Kirby and Wally Wood (inspired it) with the types of things they were doing before Marvel, with a strip called Sky Masters of the Space Force that they did in newspapers. A lot of that 50’s-style adventure strip sort of thing…I wanted to instill that in the work and give it a sort of classic feel, especially with the stories from the 40’s and 50’s that are on-line.
BS: That “feel” is definitely in there, especially with the bandana around his face. It really stands out stylistically; I really dig that.
DJ: At one point I wanted to have another artist draw the 50’s comics in a sort of Jack Kirby style or some other type of old-school style and have the new stuff drawn by me, like the modern-day stuff, but I couldn’t really find anyone to do a faux style of Kirby. And then I thought that might be kind of tacky too, so I was kind of just stuck with drawing my stories from the past in my style (in the hopes) that the underlying story comes through.
BS: Having your hero sacrifice himself to kill his nemesis is a pretty controversial move for an all-ages comic book. We know now that both David Day, the original Hero By Night, as well as his nemesis, Iron Talon, survived the explosion, but did you get any criticism for that move?
DJ: No, not really, no. Kids nowadays see a lot harsher on Cartoon Network or what would be the equivalent of their Saturday morning cartoons.
BS: Not like our day, where GI Joe always jumped out of the airplane before it blew up.
DJ: Or, the lasers are always whizzing past the peoples’ heads, yeah. But, seeing the explosion, I think that might have actually, to a kid, make them think, “Oh, man. Did he just die?” But, hopefully, that kid was reading issue #4 and saw that, somehow, David Day survives and (that) made a life-long fan out of that kid, you know?
BS: You’ve developed an incredibly detailed set of journals for Hero By Night. How much of the Hero By Night back-story did you have completed before starting these journals?
DJ: Before we started the journals, I had maybe a few sketched out and I had the ideas in my head and that was pretty much it. I mean, I knew I wanted to tell those stories. But, in order to tell stories from 1945 to 1956 you might be looking at years and years worth of books and it’s hard to put out that amount of content in print form. But, on the web, we’re able to jump around month-to-month. We could cover 1946 in the month of November, just the key things that happened in that hero’s life. It’s sort of a neat thing that we can re-touch upon, too. We can go back and tell those stories in depth at some point if they become popular with the readers. It’s a crazy amount of work. I know that the colorist, Jason, and I sit back and go, “What are we doing? This is insane.” There are little things that readers will catch that call back to the old stories and we’re really trying to do more and more of that in the new stuff, too.
BS: Hero By Night is coming out as an on-going series. What new pressures arise with an undertaking of this magnitude?
DJ: We’ll be bi-monthly to start, just because I kind of like the schedule. In the independent market, whenever you would have a book on the stands, the next book would be in that previous book. Like, issue #2 would be in the Previews for retailers to order. So, if it’s in that title and readers are coming in saying, “I like this, I like this book,” then they know, “Oh, issue #2’s in here; I’ll order it.” But, depending upon how it goes, I would like to go monthly. Not to sound egotistical, but it’s just work. We’ve done the equivalent of 300 pages in a year, so it’s kind of actually a break for us to go to 22 pages every other month instead of doing a daily comic and a print comic at the same time. It’s sort of like a breather for us and we can focus on putting out an actual good monthly comic book.
BS: How far ahead do you have the story plotted?
DJ: For the overall plots, I’ve got years and years of things that I want to cover. But, on paper, we have probably 7 or 8 issues. The co-writer now is scripting issues #4-7, so we’re about a year ahead as far as story goes.
BS: Are there any secrets or tidbits of information you can share about the new Hero By Night series?
DJ: Something we just revealed in the web comic was that David Day actually had a kid, with Elementress, from 1956. And, the Talon had been kind of blackmailing her by keeping her kid away. There might be some surprises about who that kid is or who it becomes.
BS: With Platinum Studios so close to Hollywood, has there been any talk of taking Hero By Night to the big or the small screen?
DJ: There’s been talks, but my go-to answer is that I let Platinum Studios handle that stuff—they know what they’re doing—and I kind of handle the comic book side of things. I think they’ve had some talks with, you know, they’ve actually said TV-type stuff—we’re represented by the Endeavor Agency—so it’s exciting to know that that stuff’s going on. Really, my kind of bag is keeping the comic book stuff going.
BS: You posted a pic of Hewo By Night on your blog. You mention it’s for an educational comic. Is there anything else you can tell us about it?
DJ: I don’t really know all of the details about that, but we are working with the idea of doing different educational-level comics, different grade comics for certain school districts. Those old kind of comics that I remember when I was a kid—Spider-Man telling you to brush your teeth—you like that stuff when you’re a kid. My kids bring home pamphlets but it’s not comic book stuff, it’s not stuff that they come home and think, “Oh, this is cool,” or they put on their shelf.
BS: Platinum Studios has a MySpace page dedicated to “killing off” one of the employees. Who did you pick to “kill” at Platinum Studios?
DJ: Ah, I’ve been paid off to, uh, . I don’t want to kill anybody that’s involved in keeping Hero By Night going.
BS: Definitely not Nick Jones, right?
NICK JONES: Hey, I’m still on the phone here!
DJ: I would pick Dan Forcey [VP, Content Development] because he’s actually the most awesome person to work with. When you’re in this struggle, it’s sort of like a game of survival; you have to kill the strongest. You gotta take out the head.
BS: You were planning on returning to Yirmumah! [Pronounced “yer-mama”] October 1st, but that never came to pass. Was it merely scheduling or financial concerns that got in the way?
DJ: I had some time open up and then I was actually asked to do the educational comics things and some other things—I’m going to be co-writing another book for Platinum—so I just thought, I want to focus on this part of my career. I did the Yirmumah! stuff for 10 years and I would rather focus on (Hero By Night). It’s really exciting, honestly, to be doing the Hero By Night stuff and to have this opportunity, now, to do something as far as another part of my career goes. So, I thought, “Well, I’ll leave that behind for now, and focus on this new highway.” (Sometimes) you get nostalgic for things you’ve done in the past. I busted my butt for 10 years giving this stuff away for free on-line and then the minute I turn to doing something else, all they do is complain about how they want me to go back to (Yirmumah!) and then when I finally go back to that they say, “We’re not going to buy your Hero By Night stuff.” I’ve made it a point not to give credence to those people.
BS: Are you working on any other projects that you would like us to know about?
DJ: I’m co-writing another book (for Platinum) with my old partner from Yirmumah!, Bob McDeavitt. That’s all I can say; I don’t want to give away the plot or anything. It’s coming out next year, I can say that.
BS: You mentioned that you’re really happy with where you are right now and you’re really excited about Hero By Night, but now that it is becoming a success, do you feel the itch to take a stab at some of the established characters published by the “Big 2” the way other creators like Eric Powell and Jeff Smith have?
DJ: At first, I thought, no, a lot of the stuff has been done and done to death. If I was going to do something original I would probably want to do it with my characters first. But, now I’m kind of seeing that, if the opportunities arose to work on one of those other icons, it might be nice to, you know, take your spin at it, to do a Batman or a Spider-Man. I look at things sort of differently, like, instead of DC saying, “Hey, come draw Batman,” I might say to them, like I said to Platinum—not that I forced Platinum’s hand—I would tell DC, “Hey, why don’t we do a whole new continuity of Batman on-line. You know, let’s start over from day one and just do a web continuity of Batman continuity and collect them into trades.” I mean, Spider-Man and that kind of stuff is just begging for a web continuity, you know a “Web of Spider-Man,” but they’ve got so many corporate shackles around them, I understand from people I’ve talked to, that it’s hard for them to just make the decision and go, “We want to do this on-line,” or, “We want to do this now.” They have to go through certain processes that are in place. That’s what’s kind of cool with Platinum. It’s like, I was able to say that and we were able to do that with Hero By Night. I’m sort of in that mode. But, I would still be willing to lend services somewhere else if the opportunity arose. I’m not going to say, “No,” I don’t think.
BS: DJ, thank you very much for your time. Congratulations on the new series and I’ll definitely be checking it out; I’m hooked now! It’s so detailed and so fresh that I really dug it and I’m sure everyone else will, too.
DJ: That’s good to hear. That’s really what I want to do; I want to get it out to more people. Even people that are like, “Eh, super-heroes, super-hero comics,” it’s like, hey, if you come and read it I think we’ll get you. You know, I think we’ll be able to make you a new believer. I appreciate you reading it, man.
BS: Absolutely! Thanks again.
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