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Sunday, May 22, 2016

The 'El Diablo Interview' with Jai Nitz and Phil Hester by Michael Alan Carlyle

When I met Phil Hester, artist on 2008's El Diablo series, at the guest table of North Texas Comic Book Show he was wearing my shirt. Okay, that's not exactly true. He was wearing the same exact color and style of shirt I had put on that morning (and then sweated through) in preparation for my first-ever convention coverage as a writer for DCinthe80s.

"I was going to wear that shirt," was all I could think to say. He looked at me a little befuddled, this unassuming, soft-spoken man with the easy smile. I attempted to explain I had a printer issue that morning and in my cursing and kicking, perspiration had forced me to change shirts. But that was the exact same shirt I was going to wear.

We looked at each other and, in unison, said the name of the store we bought it from and I knew this interview was going to be a load of fun. It wasn't until I met Jai Nitz that I felt completely at ease, though. Jai wrote the version of El Diablo that will be soon thrilling audiences in theaters [August 5, 2016] and he shows the same quick wit in person that he does in print.

page from El Diablo v3 #1 (2008). Property of DC comics.
The new El Diablo (Chato Santana)

The easy-going pace of the North Texas Comic Book Show allowed the three of us to sit in the Downtown Dallas Doubletree Hotel conference room and have a chat about the origins of El Diablo, the dubious honor that working on this character had brought them, and the likelihood that this would be his only big screen appearance.

DCinthe80s: With the new Suicide Squad movie coming out, El Diablo has become a pretty hot topic again. Given that prior incarnations of El Diablo didn't have powers, why did you choose an existing name for what was essentially a brand new character?

Jai Nitz: What happened was: when I was at the DC offices I was given a chance to pitch my heart's desire. I was working on a couple of different things at DC at the time and the editors I was working for said "if you could pitch whatever you want, what would you pitch?" And I am Latino and I grew up with zero Latino superheroes. I have always loved the name 'El Diablo'. And I always thought both incarnations of the character, the original one – the western was by Gray Morrow and Robert Kanigher, when they created their El Diablo, he's a really bad Zorro knock-off. I mean a REALLY bad Zorro knock-off. And it's a white guy. Like why would a white guy choose to be El Diablo? Whereas Zorro is a Mexican guy. That makes a lot of sense that he would call himself "The Fox." But the fact that just some random white dude in the old west pops up El Diablo is in my opinion patiently ridiculous. And then the second El Diablo was created by Gerard Jones and Mike Parobeck. Gerard Jones has said often that it was his version of The Spirit. It was this non-powered guy trying to be in local politics. It was about as unmarketable and unsellable of an idea as I have ever heard. In looking at the comic itself, there is nothing wrong with it except it had as little bombast in a time when you needed bombast.

El Diablo (Lazarus Lane) and Zorro:
El Diablo from Weird Western #13 (1972). Property of DC comics.Guy Williams as Zorro (circa late 50s/early 60s). Image source:

El Diablo (Rafael Sandoval) and Will Eisner's The Spirit:
panel from El Diablo v1 #2 (1989). Property of DC comics. cover detial of The Spirit #6 (Feb. 1975). Warren Publishing

Phil Hester: Everything was over the top at that time and the relative success of that book had everything to do with just the talent.

Jai Nitz: I know an inordinate amount of information about Mike Parobeck, for whatever reason. When Mike Parobeck started on that book, he was from Ohio. He was a John Byrne clone. John Byrne did a lot of shows in Ohio at the time. I don't know if John Byrne was living in Ohio then...

Phil Hester: ...or doing a lot of mid-Ohio conventions.

Jai Nitz: I can just imagine this guy growing up: The biggest artist in comics came to his hometown all the time. He drew just like him. He got hired based on the strength of that. And this book looked really good, for a first book for a guy. You can see as the 16 issues go on, he gets better and better and better with every single page until by the end he's really morphing his style into what he eventually became which was this fantastic draftsman...

panels from El Diablo v1 #16 (1991). Property of DC comics.
Mike Parobeck art

Phil Hester: A Proto-Bruce Timm

Jai Nitz: Yeah, he's basically the style that Bruce Timm end up using for Batman: The Animated Series.

So in short, I have read every El Diablo appearance ever, because I prepped for it when I did this book that I did not want it to screw up anything good that had come before. There is very little good. I am not disparaging the talents of the many people who have worked on El Diablo, but there is very little good.

There is one El Diablo western story. It is four pages long. The story is terrible but it is Neal Adams inked by Bernie Wrightson. So that's great. That's good. But those the only four pages that are worth a damn of the entire canon.

page from Weird Western Tales #12 (1972). Property of DC comics.
Weird Western Tales #12 (1972). Pencils by Neal Adams, inks by Bernie Wrightson

Phil Hester: I think it is the only one people remember.

Jai Nitz: And it is memorable in its own way. But that's the whole point: I love the name. I love the idea of it actually being a Latino guy, but I wanted it to be something where it had some superpowers just to have gravitas... some ability to tell a story that, like I said, had some bombast to it.

I did not want to tread over the same path of the first two to begin with.

If we had been really, really smart we would have just come up with a new character name. But the name was so good and it was okay to tie to the old stuff and make it better.

Phil Hester: And DC had some interest in revamping the character, so they wouldn't have just tossed that out for you if they didn't want you to do that.

DCinthe80s: Perhaps keeping a copyright in play?

Jai Nitz: Yeah and it's funny because obviously at the time when we did this book – I'm very proud of it. It is a book that I still think stands up. And most people have never read it and never seen it because, while I am very proud of it, it was one of the worst selling titles in the history of DC comics. I think issue 6 of El Diablo was THE worst selling really DC comic EVER.

cover of El Diablo v3 #6 (2009). Property of DC comics.
Worst selling DC comic ever?

DCinthe80s: Really?

Jai Nitz: Yeah. It's in the bottom five anyway. Like it sold very, very poorly.

So I always said that was one of my claims to fame: I had one of the worst selling DC titles of all time. If you had told me two years after the book came out this guy's is going to be in a movie of any kind, I would have said "No he won't. That's never gonna happen." The fact that it is – hey, that's amazing. I'm very happy.

DCinthe80s: You nixed a lot of character designs for El Diablo, and one of them sounded interesting to me. Why not a lava monster? I'm saying: everybody loves a good lava monster.

Jai Nitz: The lava monster was second, I believe. My original idea was for him to be like a Balrog from Lord of the Rings. Phil drew that and Phil wisely said there is no emotion on a Balrog's face. And I went "you are 100% right. There is no emotion on a Balrog's face".

Phil Hester: He can't act.

Jai Nitz: Right, he has to say "I'm laughing." You can't tell that he's laughing.

DCinthe80s: You have to use word balloons for everything, basically?

Jai Nitz: So that just didn't work. When Phil turned in the second design, was the lava monster thing. It looked really cool. I don't remember why we skipped it.

Phil Hester: It's not really heroic still.

Jai Nitz: Oh, it wasn't heroic at all.

Phil Hester: And he's kind of an anti-hero but he has to interact with superheroes. An import component of the story was his wrestling with his humanity. To make him identify with a human was important.

DCinthe80s: You're saying the character design plays a big part in the visual storytelling medium. What did you want the look of El Diablo to say about him as a character?

Phil Hester: We wanted him to be readily identifiable as an anti-hero. For me when I think about anti-heroes, I think about The Man With No Name. So that's where the serape came from. Since he had the old west origins and the story ties back to those origins we decided to go with that sort of "spaghetti western" look but then jazz it up the luca mask and things like that.

Poster for A Fisful of Dollars (1964). No clue who owns the rights to the image of this poster...
Clint Eastwood is... The Man With No Name

DCinthe80s: Whose decision was it for him to join the Suicide Squad?

Jai Nitz: Neither one of us?

Phil Hester: But we're glad he did.

DCinthe80s: They didn't consult with you about the character or anything? They didn't talk with either of you?

Phil Hester: No, it was a happy surprise to us.

Jai Nitz: From what I was told, because I asked what happened – I didn't know they were going to use the character. When they did the New 52 at DC, DC went through their entire catalogue of characters and said these are the characters we are going to use. They had a shocking disparity of minorities. Very, very few minority characters. So when they did that they were specific about leaning to make there be as many minority characters as possible and they did that for different black characters, obviously we've had more women characters in the New 52 but they had very few Asian characters and very few Latino characters.

In the New 52 they gave Katana her own book and she had never had that before. They made a real push with Katana, oddly enough, where she was part of the Batman cartoon Beware the Batman and she was in a lot of different stuff.

With Latino characters they used Blue Beetle for almost everything. They said we are going to put Blue Beetle in everything they could. Teen Titans had Blue Beetle, Blue Beetle had Blue Beetle and lots of different stuff like that.

But then they didn't really have many other Latino characters that way, so they used El Diablo for Suicide Squad, because he fits in for the way the team was working. Again we didn't have any say over it, I just know they needed Latino characters.

Phil Hester: And he fits that "anti-hero" sort of Deadshot-type of antihero mode.

Jai Nitz: The bad guy you're rooting for. Someone who has to do good even though he's bad. It fit and it worked, so obviously there is no complaints from either of us. But we had not been prepped for it in any way, didn't expect it in any way and even when we did I was very happy as someone of Latino descent that they were using my Latino version of the character.

And he doesn't look the same and he doesn't have powers that work the same, but everything was a revamp for the new birth of the New 52 anyway so none of that was a problem for me, I went "Ahh, who cares they are still using the character. That's great!" Again, I didn't expect anything of it.

The fact that he shows up in the movie at all is bananas to me.

publicity photo for David Ayer's Suicide Squad (2016)
David Ayer's Suicide Squad cast. El Diablo on the far right

DCinthe80s: Any fear at all that, with the title of the book and the title of the movie being the 'Suicide Squad', that they might kill your character?

Jai Nitz: Yeah, it's not "Everyone Lives Squad."

Phil Hester: And if there are Vegas odds on it, I think he's probably your safest bet to die in the movie. Well, maybe him or Slipknot.

Jai Nitz: There are a lot of possibilities for the character dying but the good news for me was they let me meet some of the actors and it was really cool.

I got to meet the director, David Ayer who's also writing the film. He uses a lot of Latino actors in all of his films because he grew up in East LA. He grew up in a Hispanic community. His wife is Latina.

It wouldn't shock me if lives or dies. David might be "Hey, I'm not killing the only Latino in the movie," but it also wouldn't shock me if he dies... Like I said, It's not "Everyone Lives Squad."

Screenshot of Jay Hernandez as El Diablo in David Ayer's Suicide Squad (2016)

Jay Hernandez as El Diablo in David Ayer's Suicide Squad film (2016)

DC in the 80s: What projects are you both currently working on?

Phil Hester: Right now I'm writing Gold Key Alliance with Dynamite, which is a revival of all the classic Gold Key superheroes: Magnus, Turok, Doctor Solar and Samson. I'm also drawing a book for Image called Beyond Belief based on the Thrilling Adventure Hour podcast and I'm writing a book for Image called Mythic with artist John McCrea

Jai Nitz: Go get Mythic! It's good!

Phil Hester: The trade will be out in June and I just wrote a Deathstroke Annual that will be out in June as well.

cover of Deathstroke Annual v3 #2 (2016). Property of DC comics.

Jai Nitz: I'm doing my book, Dream Thief, at Dark Horse. We are doing more of that right now that will be appearing in Dark Horse Presents later this year. I just a story come out in Creepy this week from Dark Horse. I have a couple of different books at Boundless right now, which is an offshoot of Avatar, so I'm doing a book called Hellina and a book called The Ravening. Hellina is out now and The Ravening will be out later this summer, and then we will have more projects there. And I have another project from DC comics later this year that has not be announced and when it does, you can imagine that it might have something maybe to do with the character showing up in the Suicide Squad movie. Maybe…

DCinthe80s: Seriously?

Jai Nitz (smiling): Yeah, Slipknot. I'm doing a Slipknot series. (chuckles)

It was shortly announced after this interview that Jai would be returning to DC to work on the new SUICIDE SQUAD MOST WANTED: EL DIABLO AND... mini-series.

Cover image of Suicide Squad Most Wanted: El Diablo and Captain Boomerang #1 (2016). Property of DC Comics.

This interview conducted by Michael Alan Carlyle. If you want to reference any of this article/interview, please credit Michael Alan Carlyle and Michael also writes the very excellent Crapbox of Son Of Cthulhu blog which we recommend you check out. Special thanks to Jai Nitz, Phil Hester and the North Texas Comic Book Show for making this possible.

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