"Comics are for everyone": an interview with Michael Northrop and Gustavo Duarte about DC Comics' "Dear Justice League"
DC Comics’ new line of books for young readers has had a pretty solid track record so far, and for my money, the best of the lot is Dear Justice League. Written by Michael Northrop, illustrated by Gustavo Duarte, colored by Marcelo Maiolo, and lettered by Wes Abbott, the concept behind the book is simple, but brilliant: the Justice League answer letters and emails written to them by their fans.
And also battle an invading horde of alien bugs. You know, typical League stuff.
It’s absolutely hysterical and utterly delightful, with jokes and a story that will appeal to readers young and old. Northrop and Duarte were gracious enough to answer a few questions about the book, so read on to find out about their favorite gags, how they got involved with the project, and why they think comics truly are for everybody.
Comics Now: How did you get involved in this project?
Michael Northrop: It was like a lightning strike: DC contacted me out of the blue about writing something. They were looking for some experienced YA and Middle Grade authors and wondered if I might have some ideas. I had about eight million, but this is the one we focused on.
Gustavo Duarte: At the beginning of 2018, DC sent me an email mentioning this new label for kids that they were starting. They asked me if I was interested in working on a Justice League book for the imprint.
CN: How did the two of you collaborate? Did Michael have a fairly complete script that Gustavo worked off of, or did you share ideas back and forth?
MN: I had a fairly complete script, but I definitely left room for Gustavo’s interpretation. Honestly, the more pages I saw from Gustavo, the more room I wanted him to have to interpret this story. Gustavo has a lot more comics experience than I do, and that really helped too. There were definitely times when, for example, the script said spread and he looked at it and was like: Nope, these are two separate pages. And he was always right!
GD: When I started, Michael was just finishing the script. Once he finished, I began the pages and we would touch base via email throughout the process.
CN: This is a pretty iconic Justice League lineup, though there are a few fun surprises. Hawkgirl is always a welcome sight, and Simon Baz’s Green Lantern was an inspired choice, but mainstays like Martian Manhunter are noticeably absent. How was this roster chosen? Are there any League members you didn’t get a chance to include, or want to bring on in a future installment?
MN: When you write a Justice League comic, most of it is non-negotiable. It was just at the edges that we could make some choices. One of the things I was looking for was more of a fun, youthful energy. There are plenty of very adult and serious members, so give me Kendra and Simon—and honestly, Hawkgirl is kind of the glue that holds the whole thing together. She’s friendly, she’s funny, and she’s flexible enough to learn from a mistake. And after we’d settled on which heroes to include, Gustavo was really key in deciding what versions of those heroes to go with, especially early on with the character sketches.
And yeah, I’d love to include Martian Manhunter sometime. Such a fascinating perspective! He’s so alien, literally otherworldly, but also relatable. He reminds me of Superman in that sense. What’s that line: More human than human?
GD: I agree that Martian Manhunter could be a very nice addition.
Besides him, I think I would love to see Plastic Man and the Wonder Twins. Just to have Gleek. :)
CN: Do you have a particular favorite gag or sequence from the story? How about any jokes that you really wanted to work in but just didn’t fit?
MN: It’s the Hawkgirl chapter, basically the whole thing: the set-up email, her slow approach to the cage, her shadow falling ominously over her hamster… Hamlet is basically the breakout star of this book, by the way. Everyone wants to talk to me about that little dude.
I can’t think of any jokes that I really wanted to include but couldn’t. We packed a lot of jokes into this book!
GD: I like the Little Diana sequence. Drawing her in Dear Justice League, was one of my favorite moments for me.
CN: Michael, you’ve written several novels before. What did you bring from those experiences that helped in writing a comic script?
MN: Yeah, Dear Justice League is my first graphic novel but my thirteenth book for young readers. I think the main things I was able to bring to it were experience writing for this age—what resonates, what doesn’t; what young readers can stumble over or engage with—and how to get right into a story in a way that grabs readers. That was important because this book is structured as nine linked stories. Picking where and how to begin each one was really crucial.
CN: Conversely, what challenges did you run into, writing for comics rather than straight prose?
MN: Well, in prose, I’m doing all the work. If I want a reader to see or know or feel something, I have to describe it in words. With a graphic novel, the artist is really doing a lot of that heavy lifting. Readers see the world through Gusavo’s drawings. They see some of the characters’ emotions through the expressions he gives them, and things like that. I needed to let go a little and trust Gustavo to communicate a lot of the things I am used to communicating directly.
Fortunately, he is awesome! It was not only comfortable stepping back and letting him shoulder a lot of the load, it was really a joy.
CN: How did you formulate the structure of the story? Like, why was Superman first as opposed to, say, Wonder Woman or Batman?
MN: I was mostly just trying to mix it up and establish a nice rhythm with the chapters. Longer chapters and shorter chapters, more serious ones and sillier ones, bigger names and less well-known heroes, and things like that. Superman was the obvious choice for the first chapter, though. Not only is he the most iconic hero, but that letter and his response go right to the heart of the book, the idea that superheroes are people too.
CN: One of the things that strikes me about Dear Justice League is that it’s perfectly accessible for young reader and older fans alike, but there isn’t any content that would go over a younger reader’s head or be considered inappropriate. Ultimately, I love that you don’t talk down to the audience, no matter the age group. What’s your process like in trying to have as wide an appeal as possible while still telling an engaging, incredibly likable story?
MN: Thanks, I really appreciate that. I always try to talk to young readers instead of at or down to them. It’s kind of my guiding principle, to be honest. I wrote this book specifically with young readers in mind, but I think the elements that let them enjoy it work just as well for older readers, especially the humor and visual storytelling. There are not a ton of words in this book—and a lot of the ones that are there are sound effects and puns and things like that. That’s good for very young readers, but honestly, I don’t think you’ll find a ton of adults complaining. And we can do that because we’re telling so much of the story with Gustavo’s amazing, expressive, vibrant art.
The old-school DC approach is that the words should be additive, that you should be able to follow the story just from the pictures, and I really took that to heart. What I added was jokes, sounds, some fun back-and-forth in the dialogue—all stuff that kids and adults can both enjoy.
Heck, we may even lure in some teens!
JY: I first took notice of Gustavo’s work on Bizarro, which was similar to Dear Justice League in how silly and fun it was. You also illustrated a Batman and Detective Chimp story that was still plenty of fun, but had a completely different tone. How do you adapt your style to different stories?
GD: When you are drawing a comic, you are telling a story for the reader. This is similar to what a director does in a movie. As a director, the comic book artist has his (or her) own style but for each project the artist needs to find the best tone to reach the appropriate audience.
With Dear Justice League case, one thing that really made a difference, was working with Marcelo Maiolo on the colors. We worked together to find a style between the lines and the colors that fits with what Michael wrote.
JY: Which League member was the most fun to draw? Any that you’d been waiting for years to get a crack at and finally got your chance here?
GD: I think the one I’ve been waiting to get a crack at was the Joker because he’s my favorite DC character. I used to draw him often when I was a kid so it was really special to draw him now, especially in this book.
When it comes to my favorite Justice League member to draw, one of my favorite parts of the book was to draw the Little Diana sequence. She is another character that I would love to do an entire book around.
JY: Superman’s chapter in particular is pretty complex in its escalating danger, with pacing that plays out almost like an old silent film. How did you plan out and execute this sequence?
GD: With comics, you need to know how to tell a story with images. Sure, in most of cases, you also have other layers like text and dialogue. But you can also tell it with just images. I love silent comics. Most of my own books are silent. So, in the Superman chapter, I would work Michael’s script as I usually work on my own books, using the main character to tell the readers the story through his actions.
CN: Some of the funniest bits are in the sound effects and random captions on the pages. How did those come about? Did Michael script them verbatim, Gustavo, did you have a hand in drawing them, or was that all letterer Wes Abbott’s doing?
MN: I put a few of those in early on in and just called them “SFX” in the script, because I didn’t know any better. Our editor, Sara Miller, was like A) let’s call them “SFX bursts” and B) I love them—let’s really lean into these.
GD: I did a few of them. But almost everything was done by Wes. Who, by the way, did a fantastic job throughout the entire book,
CN: Oh, totally agree. Wes’ lettering here is absolutely phenomenal.
What are your thoughts on this new young reader-focused imprint at DC?
MN: I love it. I mean, comics started out aimed exclusively at kids and now, if you walk into a comic shop, apart from maybe one little all-ages rack, they’re geared almost exclusively toward adults. I just feel like the pendulum has swung pretty far, and it’s normal and healthy for it to come back a bit. Comics shouldn’t be only for kids or only for adults. Why can’t there be something there for everyone? That’s what this imprint is about.
GD: I loved the idea since the beginning. We always hear that “Comics are not only for kids.” Which is correct. Comics are for everybody but they’re also for kids. So, it’s wonderful to have a label within DC, working on stories for kids and presenting all these iconic characters to a new generation.
CN: Is there anything you can tell us about next year’s Dear Super-Villains?
GD: Humm. I can’t yet. But Michael can. :)
MN: I’m aiming for a book that is a little less friendly, which is a weird thing to say about a kids book, but there you go. There will be arguments and insults and misunderstandings—and no cute pets. Of course, the friendliness is set to about 178% in Dear Justice League, so “less friendly” is still probably 90%. But I really want that little thrill of danger, that vague sense of the forbidden, that you get with the best (worst) villains.
CN: How about any other projects either of you have lined up?
MN: Well, I’ve got a YA novel out on submission. It’s about young people and young dragons and the messes they inherit. Everything else is Top Secret.
GD: I have some ideas that I would love to talk and to work with DC after we finish Dear Super-Villains. :) Besides that, I have scripts almost done for two future books that I would like to find a time to draw.
JY: There are some other really cool visual touches throughout the book, like the opening pages of Hawkgirl’s chapter that show the same action from two different perspectives. Gustavo, where do you get the inspiration for such interesting layouts?
GD: Good question! For Hawkgirl’s page, Michael came up with the idea to see her from the front and from the back. I really liked that concept and tried to draw the exact same pose from the front and the back. If you look the page against the light you will see that composition of each page is exactly the same as another.
CN: Just for fun, who’s your favorite superhero?
MN: Well, Superman is probably my favorite. He’s just so iconic. That to me is what a hero is.
But the power that resonates with me the most is Green Lantern’s ability to give his thoughts form, to make his imagination real. It’s so similar to what I try to do as a writer.
GD: My favorite superhero would be Spider-Man and my favorite Super-Villain would be Joker.
CN: Thanks very much for taking the time to talk with us. Anything else you’d like to leave our readers with?
MN: I’d just like to give a few shout outs. Marcelo Maiolo’s colors are incredible in this book, and Wes Abbott’s lettering is brilliant. There are several panels where the lettering is absolutely the star. How often can you say that—but then how often do you see a question mark made out of sausage links? And our editor, Sara Miller, was a really big part of the overall fun feel of this book. She encouraged Gustavo and me to really go for it and have fun. We definitely did, and I think that joy comes through in the finished product.
GD: I want to thank you too Jay, for this chat. I hope that everybody who reads the book, enjoyed it as much as Michael, Marcelo, Wes, Sara and I enjoyed putting it together :)
Dear Justice League is available now.