Today’s Guest: Chuck Dixon, comic book writer, “The Simpsons, “Batman”
One of the most anticipated movies of this summer — no, not Harry Potter: Order of the Phoenix — and no, Fantastic Four: The Rise of the Silver Surfer — is The Simpsons Movie.
And while Matt Groening couldn’t make it to join us today, we are lucky enough to welcome a member of the extended “Simpsons” creative family, frequent Simpsons comic book writer Chuck Dixon.
Dixon is a prolific comics writer, easily shifting between the in-jokes and low humor of Bart and Homer for Bongo Comics to the high drama of DC’s caped crusader, Batman.
BOB ANDELMAN: Please complete this sentence, Chuck: “I’m Bart Simpson…”
CHUCK DIXON: And you’re not.
ANDELMAN: There you go. All right. Now we’ve confirmed the identity of today’s guest. Chuck, I’m guessing that writing for <The Simpsons comic is either your toughest gig or the most fun, but there’s probably no in-between.
DIXON: Actually, there is. Well, like any writing, it’s fun when it’s going well and living hell when it’s not, but it is a hard gig because there are a lot of demands and a lot of expectations. You expect a level of humor from The Simpsons that you don’t expect from any other property, so you’ve got to get those “laugh out loud” moments in every story, which, that’s tough.
ANDELMAN: Do you have to do anything to psych yourself up or to get in the mood to write a Simpsons script that maybe you don’t have to for Grifter or Batman or Nightmare on Elm Street?
DIXON: Well, I have to cogitate more on it. It sort of has to percolate, and once I’ve got two or three scenes in my head, then I go to work right then and work to tie them together into the plot, but it’s a much slower process for The Simpsons. It takes two or three times longer to write a Simpsons script than it would be to write anything else. There’s that pressure. I probably put more pressure on myself than I need to, but I like to be the guy who hands in the problem-free script, so I don’t send it out. The Simpsons script out until it’s — to my mind — perfect.
ANDELMAN: Have any of the stories that you’ve written come from your own life or your own family?
DIXON: Recently, I wrote one: “Marge Simpson, Forensic Homemaker,” in which she comes home from grocery shopping to find the kitchen in an unholy mess, even messier than usual, and her suspects are Maggie, Bart, and Homer. She uses forensics to figure out who made the mess. She traces it back. She figures it all started with somebody trying to make a smoothie in a blender, and it’s very much from my own life. I thought I had cleaned up a mess, and my wife traced it back to the blender and even knew the ingredients, and that astounded me. I thought, well, this is a Marge Simpson story.
ANDELMAN: Your wife deserves a comic book if she figured that out.
DIXON: Absolutely, absolutely.
Part 2 of 2
ANDELMAN: How did you get the job?
DIXON: They do their annual “Treehouse of Horror” comic, and it’s invitation only. It’s like Augusta! I wanted to do it, but you don’t go and say, hey, I want to be in the “Treehouse of Horror” comic, so I sort of waited until I was invited, and once I had my foot in the door, a couple of months later, I came up with another Simpsons idea for a full issue. I said, “Would you be open to this?” And they bought it, and slowly over time, I’d do a couple a year, but recently, I’ve stepped up. I’m doing quite a few stories for them, for the various comics.
ANDELMAN: Who’s harder to put words in their mouth, Bart, Homer, Maggie?
DIXON: Well, Maggie’s easy. Homer can be tough, but the toughest one is Ralph Wiggum, because he’s… So much of The Simpsons humor comes from surprise at what they say, because it’s always a reversal. It’s always something you’d never think they were going to say, and Ralph is the king of that. I mean, he says things that no one’s ever said and no one will ever say again and only he can say. So The Simpsons is great, because every character has a voice. It’s not like “Friends” or some other sit com where the lines are interchangeable and anyone can read them. Everything is specific, and Ralph is the most specific of them all. Lenny and Carl jokes are tough to come up with, too, because they have raised the bar so high on the show.
ANDELMAN: What about Comic Book Guy and….
DIXON: Comic Book Guy is easy. I’ve taken to have him come in when the characters are saying, “That never happened,” or “I don’t remember that.” I’ll have Comic Book Guy simply show up in the background and remind people of continuity.
ANDELMAN: He’s kind of the Greek chorus?
DIXON: Yeah, exactly. And he’s easy to write, because anybody who’s interested in comics has met that guy a million times or is that guy.
ANDELMAN: You don’t write these comics in a vacuum. There are a lot of people back, I guess back on the west coast that look over everything you do. Do you get comments back from them?
DIXON: It depends. Some stories are tougher than others. Some stories sail through with no problem, maybe a little change here or whatever, and they always let me make the changes, which is nice, and they’ll have suggestions. They’ll call, and they’ll have a problem, and they’ll have a possible solution to it, which is great, instead of just, “You’re the writer, you figure it out.” But yeah, I deal with Terry Dellajean, and I deal with Bill Morrison, who are directly involved in the offices. And then from my understanding, Matt Groening oversees everything. So I’m dealing with the core people, and I’ve been dealing with the same people from the beginning, which is great, because when you write licensed properties in comics, generally you are dealing with some entry-level guy who’s only had the job a few weeks, because he’s going to move up to be producer or something, and those guys are always trying to prove real hard that they are doing their job, so they ask for a million re-writes, but The Simpsons, the Bongo guys, they are terrific. They are helpful.
ANDELMAN: Can you give us an example of notes you’ve gotten about scripts?
DIXON: Mostly just make it funnier, or this could be funnier, or the ending could be snappier. The worst one is when they don’t get a joke. I did a joke in a comic — I had Homer arrested by the police, and they put him in the back of the squad car, and he’s shouting, “I’m innocent, I’m innocent, I didn’t do it,” and the cop says, that’s what everybody says. And Homer says, “I bless the rains down in Africa. Does everyone say that?” See, you got it. They didn’t get it, and this was one… I know when to walk away from a joke that’s not working, because it’s like, okay, only I thought it was funny, and if you have to explain a joke, it’s dead, but this one I fought for, and it went all the way up the chain, and no one there got it.
DIXON: But everyone I’ve ever told it to thought it was funny.
ANDELMAN: Nobody gets the Toto reference.
DIXON: Well, they got the reference, they just didn’t see why it was funny, and I thought, well, isn’t that something no one would ever say? But I’ve learned since then if they don’t get it to walk away. I’ve got a “Rock and Roll Heaven” joke, script I haven’t handed in yet that I’m terrified they won’t get. But we’ll see.
ANDELMAN: How different is it to write for The Simpsons than for super heroes? I mean, Batman, not the funniest guy on earth.
DIXON: Well, drama’s just easier because pathos is easier to go for. I mean, the hardest thing about Batman is suspense, but basically once you’ve got that down, once you’ve seen two Hitchcock movies, if you didn’t get it by then, you’re never going to get it.
ANDELMAN: I think you’re supposed to make it seem harder, Chuck. I don’t think you want to make it seem that easy for people to do.
DIXON: Well, maybe it isn’t! I don’t know. I look at things, and I go, why didn’t they get this? This isn’t hard. How do you make a lousy Shadow movie? I mean, how do you make a lousy Tarzan movie? How do you screw that up? So yeah, you’ve got the suspense elements. You can dazzle them with clever dialogue exchanges and meanness. Cruelty is a big thing in comics now. It’s like Quentin Tarantino. It is like, what’s the plot of a Quentin Tarantino movie? Well, there really isn’t one, but all that dialogue is kind of cool, and the characters look great.
ANDELMAN: Kind of like Ocean’s Thirteen.
DIXON: Yeah. Well, I don’t know. I don’t know. I saw Ocean’s Twelve. I can’t figure that one out. What I can’t figure out is why they made another one. But yeah, it’s just easier, but writing funny stuff is harder. An Archie writer recently told me that superheroes are easier because it’s half the work, because they don’t have to be funny, so you can some up with a plot, and that’s it. Just plot.
ANDELMAN: Is it painful when you get a script back and someone says, it’s not funny, or it’s not funny enough?
DIXON: I really have a thick skin on that stuff. It’s like you throw it against the wall, and it works, or it doesn’t work. If it didn’t make you laugh, then yeah, I’m glad you pointed it out. I’d rather fail here in the script stage than somebody read the comic and go, that wasn’t funny, or he didn’t get it. I mean, if they are not getting the jokes, or it’s not funny to them, then obviously it’s not going to be funny to the reader, that my timing didn’t work, or the reference didn’t work.
ANDELMAN: I know you haven’t seen The Simpsons Movie yet as we sit and have this conversation, but you’re looking forward to it, I guess, and I guess there are multiple reasons why you’d like it to be a big hit.
DIXON: Yeah. I’m really looking forward to it. It’s been a long time coming and lots of reasons why it wasn’t made before, and yeah, I’d like it to do well. It would be a huge shot in the arm, but if this thing performs the way I think it’s going to perform, it’s going to re-invigorate the franchise all over again and also for its worldwide audience. “The Simpsons” has an enormous worldwide audience. The Simpsons comics are the number one best-selling comics in most European countries, Germany and Holland. I think they like the perverse view of America, and it’s a lot of the reason why we keep the comic franchise going is for foreign audiences, but yeah, the movie is going to help all of that.
ANDELMAN: Do you benefit if the comic sells more copies?
DIXON: No. They pay very well up front. It’s a work for hire situation. They pay better than any other comic, which I probably shouldn’t say that. I don’t want my job taken away by some Englishman! But they pay well up front, and they pay quickly, which is really important for comic book writer.
ANDELMAN: Very important to a freelance writer, absolutely.
DIXON: Very important. Sometimes, it’s not how much you make, it’s how often you make it.
ANDELMAN: How did you get started in comics?
DIXON: I just can’t do anything else well. I’ve always wanted to do comics, and like most comic book writers, I thought I was going to be an artist, but I simply don’t have the discipline to be an artist, so I became a writer, which doesn’t need any discipline at all. When I realized I couldn’t do the art as well as writing, I just kept hammering away at the companies, and I started going up for interviews in the 1970s, which was the worst time. It was like the Great Depression for comics. It was horrible. Sales were awful. They were laying people off left and right, so I didn’t really get to writing full-time until I was 30. The rest of the time, I did children’s books for a while, hated that, and I drove an ice cream truck, I worked at a 7-Eleven, I did every donkey job imaginable, because I simply wasn’t good at anything else, and there was really no point in pursuing a doctorate!
ANDELMAN: It’s nice to meet someone else who has that attitude. I’ve been writing since I was 13 or 14, and people say, “Why?” I say, “I can’t seem to be able to do anything else.” I’m not even sure I do this well.
DIXON: I mean, yeah, that’s the paranoia is, gee, am I a big fraud, and I don’t have any talent at all? But I can’t hammer a nail to a board straight, so I better do something.
ANDELMAN: Okay, I can do that, for the record. I just want it on the record. I can hammer a nail, so….
DIXON: Well, I used to roof for a living, still can’t hammer a nail.
ANDELMAN: You said you worked on some children’s books, but your focus was always that you wanted to write comics?
DIXON: Always comics, never anything else. I’m not one of these guys who’s in comics until my novel gets sold or until I sell a screen play. I honestly don’t care about any of that. If you ever see me writing a novel or writing a screenplay, it’s because I couldn’t get comic work. I’ve done some prose work recently, and I’ve written some movie treatments simply to expand my horizons, because I like to think a year or two years down the road, but if I wrote comics until the very day I died, and that’s all I ever wrote, then I’d be the happiest guy on earth. I really like it.
ANDELMAN: Your son Colin is here. Would you encourage him to follow you? Does he have any interest in writing?
DIXON: Yeah, I think he has interest in storytelling and in writing. It’s hard not to when you live with a person who writes all the time. And writing looks easy, until you’re inside the person’s head and realize the lonely torment every day, this long distance marathon of trying to get a story together. But yeah, he can’t help but by osmosis be interested in it.
ANDELMAN: I actually had someone just yesterday say to me, “How do you get motivated every day and get up and write?” My answer to them was, I pointed to my daughter, and I said, “Because she’s got to eat.” Do you have a different kind of motivation?
DIXON: Well, no. I want to take care of my family. It’s like anybody else who goes to a job, but the mechanics of actually how to get started, that’s always been tough. If you’re a writer, you know. It’s tough, like, what are my first words? There are always in the writing magazines all these bozo writing exercises, none of which works. Just write down gibberish. That’s great. But the best advice I ever got was I read an interview with a screen writer from the 40s, and he said, “Never write down your last idea of the day, so that the next day, you know where you’re going to start.” And it sounds corny, but it really works. It’s like, well, I have an idea for one more page. I know what happens, but I won’t write it. I’ll quit for the day, and tomorrow morning, I know what my first page is. And once you get that done, it’s clear sailing. It’s easy. Well, not easy. But easier.
ANDELMAN: Let’s talk about some of the other comic series that you’ve worked on, Nightmare on Elm Street, for example. Is there anything you can tell us about that?
DIXON: I really enjoyed the time on that. When WildStorm got the new line license, they offered me my choice of Freddie or Jason or Texas Chainsaw, and I went for Freddie immediately, because there is something more cerebral about a guy who chases you in your nightmares. Plus, the suspense is all built in. I love the tension that you never know if the characters are awake or asleep. Are they in the real world and safe, or are they asleep and in Freddie’s dimension? And I built a lot upon that stuff. Plus, Nightmare on Elm Street, they aren’t necessarily Old Testament morality plays like the other ones are. In Nightmare on Elm Street, everyone’s up for grabs. It doesn’t have to be the cheerleader who is having premarital sex. It can be anybody.
ANDELMAN: How did you know I was thinking of her?
DIXON: So there’s less built-in predictability to Nightmare, plus, Freddie’s a great character. He’s obviously smarter than Jason or whatever that insane family is in the Texas stories.
ANDELMAN: Now, I understand you are working on a new Grifter/Midnighter series for DC’s sister company, WildStorm. For those, frankly, who have never heard of the characters or the publisher, no disrespect to either, but a fact’s a fact. Here’s an opportunity to pitch the series. What would you tell people about it to recommend it to new readers?
DIXON: Well, it’s a real post-modern comic in which you’ve got these guys that, they probably have to stand on a chair and get a dispensation from the Pope to be anti-heroes. I mean, they’re just not nice guys. The only thing that makes them a protagonist in the stories is that the bad guys are just so damn bad. Midnighter is a popular character. He’s a member of a group called The Authority, which is a big Eisner Award-winning series from WildStorm. Grifter is an original member of the WildCats series created by Jim Lee, and I’ve written Grifter before. I did a number of Team 7 books for WildStorm years ago in which Grifter appeared, and basically this is just the two of them getting together against an alien menace, and it’s a really weird alien menace. I mean, I came up with something really, really strange, and it’s got gorgeous artwork by Ryan Benjamin. It’s post-modern nihilistic superhero action the way that the fans apparently like it now. So as Abe Lincoln said, “If you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you’ll like.”
ANDELMAN: Is that what he said?
DIXON: Yes, he did.
ANDELMAN: Let’s say I grant you the power to be able to make the phone ring and any editor you want, offering any character, an assignment doing any character you’d like, what would be the character?
DIXON: It’s a even split between two. I would love to do a long run on The Fantastic Four, and I would love an opportunity to write The Lone Ranger, and those are the two. After Batman, that’s pretty much… I mean, I never thought I’d write Batman. I never thought I’d write it, and when I got the invitation to come in and join the Bat-team, I was like, this can’t be real. There has to be a joke here somewhere. So once you’ve written Batman, everything else sort of pales in comparison, but those are the two that I would really like a shot at.
DIXON: Well, that’s the thing. I wouldn’t do anything that hasn’t been done before, I’d just fall back on what makes those characters great and what makes it a classic… and just come up with new threats for them, because that’s what Stan (Lee) and Jack (Kirby) did every month, come up with a threat that made you as a reader believe this has to be the last issue, because they can’t get out of this, and I love that aspect of it. And the characters, I had a couple of brief opportunities to write them, and that’s the happiest I had ever been writing comics, because they simply write themselves. The relationships are all laid out and classic, and you can still write surprises within the framework, but they just work so beautifully together.
ANDELMAN: So are you excited or anxious about the Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer movie?
DIXON: I think it’s a step in the right direction. The first movie I would have liked a lot better if they had treated the Doom origin closer to the comic, because Doom, he’s the be-all, end-all of villains for me. He’s a villain that you can’t help but like in a lot of ways, which that’s a great villain when you’re conflicted. He’s like the Tony Soprano of comics. He means well. So I’m glad to see with Silver Surfer that they are going to be hueing closer to what the comics are about. I’m just anxious to see, is Galactus going to be in it. Or are they just going to dodge around that one.ANDELMAN: It would seem like there have to be some. I mean, why else would the Silver Surfer be coming to Earth, right?
DIXON: Yeah, yeah, you’d think that, but then how many times have we gone to a comic movie and think, oh, well, this has to …. Well, how did they miss that one?
ANDELMAN: You mean like The Hulk?
DIXON: Yeah, yeah. If you want a sublime comic book experience, The Hulk No. 1 by Stan and Jack, you can’t beat it. It’s got everything but the kitchen sink in it, and it all works, and I would defy anybody to find a comic with more in it told better, and they make a movie of it and throw it all out the window for some strange Freudian blather.
ANDELMAN: Chuck, one of the major issues in your industry is over the future of the so-called pamphlet, the traditional 32 page comic book versus the explosion of bigger, more expensive graphic novels and comic collections. What do you think the future holds for comic book publishing?
DIXON: Well, I think for one thing, the major companies, meaning DC and Marvel, and they are starting to do this, they have to look at something beyond superheroes, because if you see the list of top-selling trades and graphic novels, there ain’t a superhero on there. I mean, Asterix is on there but just no superheroes, and it’s because superheroes, and to the casual reading public, form a very small sub-genre of science fiction. They are not as admired. They are not Wizard hot in the real world of casual readers and library goers, and library sales are becoming more and more important to comics.
Comics are going to have to make some kind of a sea change, and I don’t think going directly to trade is it, because that’s a lot of money up front, and the comics industry is always used to getting their money in 30 days, and you know, in the book trade, you have to wait 90 days. That’s a big consideration for comics, and they will have to do more marketing and things like that. I prefer if they used the model in Japan of doing the big telephone book anthologies. I think that would be a better way to go because there is a lot of value there. There’s no value in a $2.99, 22-page comic. There just isn’t. I don’t know why anybody buys them. I know I write them, and I pray to God they sell, but I don’t understand why anybody would buy one. There’s no value there.
ANDELMAN: I think back to 30 years ago and going to the Krauszer’s convenience store when the new comics would come in and walking out with a stack that was about three inches thick, and they were 15¢ or 12¢ each. But now, I like to take my daughter to the comic book store. One or two comics, $3 to $5 each. That’s about all we’re going to get, and she reads them like eating candy.
DIXON: And they run way ahead of inflation. I mean, nothing’s going up in price the way… maybe movie admissions. I remember the month they went from a dime to 12¢. I was a kid. For a quarter you got two comics and a Mounds bar. Well, that all changed, and I was stunned then. I can’t imagine kids now. And you look at a Manga book, 170 pages for under $10, that’s a deal. You look at Shonen Jump, what is it, like $5, $6 for over 300 pages. Yeah, I want that. I don’t want this little tiny stack of real estate brochures.
ANDELMAN: As we are talking, the major comic book event of the year, Comic-Con International in San Diego, is still a few weeks away. What’s the appeal of that convention? Why do you go, and what do you get out of it?
DIXON: Mostly, I go to conventions to meet up with guys that I work with that I don’t get to see face to face, and the irony is that I don’t get much face to face time with them because the conventions are so big. I must have done 10 conventions in a row in which Billy Tucci and I said, “I’ll talk to you later,” and we never talked, so that’s the big attraction for me. Meeting the fans, that’s a lot of fun, although it’s very tiring, but you have some great conversations with fans, and it’s nice to see the public, and it’s nice to see the medium in sort of an almost carnival or state fair atmosphere and the enormity of it. It really is the one for the United States. I’d love to make a European con because they are even bigger.
ANDELMAN: Why do you suppose this one has gotten so big and its reputation has grown? I mean, this is an event now that is covered in the daily newspapers, the entertainment press. They all cover this now, whereas no other comic book show gets this kind of attention.
DIXON: Well, the proximity to Hollywood and LA is a huge factor. San Diego as a vacation destination point cannot be discounted, because it is an amazing place to visit. The weather is fantastic. Here we are in Tampa, and I am still jealous of San Diego’s weather. It’s like our weather in January all year long. It’s amazing, and you notice it when you get off the plane. I can’t say enough about their weather. This is no hyperbole. You get off that plane, and it’s like, Oh God, I’ve died and gone to Heaven.” I think those are the two big factors, plus they promote it. The city is very friendly to the comic book convention, and they always have been. They have promoted the convention just as they would any other huge event in their city, and they’ve helped build it. It’s a great convention center. It’s right down there by the water, right across from Coronado Island. It’s gorgeous. So there is really no downside except it’s gotten so big.
ANDELMAN: I have not been there yet. I keep thinking next year, next year I’m going to make it. I’m still hoping that that’s going to happen soon. It sounds like a great…
DIXON: It’s amazing. It’s the only convention that I’ve ever been to that has a horizon line.
Thanks to Tampa Digital Studios!