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Thursday, October 28, 2021

Dan Mishkin talks DC's supernatural anthology titles and "I...Vampire"

This is an excerpt from a series of interviews we conducted with writer Dan Mishkin from 2018. Rather than post one really long interview, we decided to break it up into parts. In celebration of Halloween, we decided to post Mishkin's memories on his first work for DC.

For those of you who may not know, Dan Mishkin is the co-creator of Amethyst and Blue Devil (two of DC's stand-out characters from the 1980s). The other half of that creative team is Gary Cohn -- a childhood friend of Mishkin's who also aspired to be a writer and joined forces with Mishkin to create some memorable stories for DC. A lot of Mishkin's early work for DC was written in collaboration with Cohn (both being credited as the writers), and they would continue to collaborate until the mid-80s when career paths would lead them down different roads. They are still good pals as of this day.

Justin: You started working for DC by contributing stories to sci-fi and supernatural anthology titles (Warp, Mystery In Space, Weird War Tales, House of Mystery, Secrets of Haunted House, Unexpected, Ghosts). How did you get these gigs? What was it like "breaking into DC"?

Dan: Getting back to our very earliest work, here’s the huge lesson I learned from our first sale: Sometimes what editors want is not what they say they want, or not always so. Jack [C. Harris]’s rubric for what a Time Warp story was to be (no issues had been published when we sold ours) basically asked for twist endings that involved horrible things happening to the protagonists in outer space or some other sci-fi setting. We totally violated that with a story about an astronaut who crash lands on a barren, wintry planetoid and is taken in by an old coot neither he nor the reader has reason to trust…but who turns out to be Santa Claus, and who takes the astronaut back to Earth on his sleigh. That was one of about a dozen springboards we pitched to Jack, and it’s the only one he bought.

page from Time Warp #3 (1980)

And what seemed to happen after Jack took a small chance on us — small because a three-page story in an anthology title can turn out crappy without bringing down the book’s batting average too much —is that other editors then considered us to be worth their time, their doors opening in ways they hadn’t before. I also made a point of traveling to New York about every six weeks — I grew up there and could stay with my parents, and the overnight train was cheap — so I could be more than a voice on the phone to editors, and I think that made a difference when it came to picking up more assignments in the anthology books.

Justin: By my count, you and Cohn (as a writing duo) had roughly 40 stories published in the anthology titles (this includes your "I...Vampire" material). I seem to recall once reading (or being told by someone) that the creation of Amethyst and Blue Devil were a direct result of you guys working on said anthology titles?

Mishkin: As for Amethyst and Blue Devil, neither one of those existed even as a vague notion until we were writing professionally and were asked to come up with new series. Each of those grew out an invitation to invent a lead feature for one of DC’s "mystery" titles, as "I…Vampire" was for House of Mystery. But for whatever reason, they caught the attention of higher-ups who wanted to original series in brand-new titles. We were lucky to be around during one of those unusual times when the company was looking to broaden its offerings. Though I have to say that I’m still amazed they published Amethyst, even as a limited series. Nothing in what they knew about their audience said that it had any chance of catching fire. Then again, they really didn’t know much about their audience anyway. And Jenette Kahn’s feminism may have played a role.

The Amethyst series was originally solicited by Dave Manak, who was editing some of the anthology titles and whom Gary [Cohn] and I had done work for. As I alluded to earlier, the thought was that it could be the lead feature in one of those titles, as “I…Vampire” was for House of Mystery, and the same was true with Dave’s request for a feature that eventually became Blue Devil. It was only after DC decided in both cases that the characters could support their own brand-new books that Karen came aboard for Amethyst and Alan Gold (with Len Wein being involved intermediately) for Blue Devil.

[Interviewer's note: "I... Vampire" was a series that ran in House of Mystery from 1981 to 1983. It told the story of Andrew Bennett -- a Lord in Queen Elizabeth's court (circa 16th century) who gets bitten by a vampire and in turn becomes a vampire himself -- who hunts down and kills vampires that are members of the Cult of the Blood Red Moon. While Marvel actively used Dracula as a character in their stories, DC didn't have a vampire character -- so Andrew Bennett was it.]

Justin: Speaking of  which, you guys took over the recurring "I...Vampire" saga that ran in House of Mystery. Introduced in House of Mystery #290 (by J.M. DeMatteis), the ongoing story of Andrew Bennett quickly became a fan-favorite. "I... Vampire" was written by DeMatteis until he left, in which Bruce Jones took over. You guys took it over from Jones starting with issue #310. I know that you and Cohn had both become semi-regular contributors to House of Mystery by the time you took over for Jones on "I...Vampire". How did that come about? Did Bruce Jones hand the reigns over to you guys? Or was it an 'editorial' decision?

Dan: Our taking over “I…Vampire” is entirely the result of having a good working relationship with Karen Berger, along with the aforementioned dependability that made us likely candidates to reach out to. We didn’t seek the assignment but were very happy to accept it when Karen made the offer.

Justin: By the way, DeMatteis introduced a supporting character named 'Mishkin' to Andrew Bennett very early in the series. Was that a coincidence... or something more?

Panels from House of Mystery #290 illustrated by Tom Sutton

Dan: As far as I know, it was just a coincidence. Mark [aka: J.M. DeMatteis] and I didn’t know each other, and I can only assume that he’d read Dostoevsky and that when he needed a Russian name, it was either Karamazov, Raskolnikov or Mishkin, and that the last was easiest to type.

And then, of course, Gary and I decided to kill off Dmitri Mishkin — for good story reasons but also, a bit, out of the perverse pleasure of killing a character with my name. In fact, I asked Karen Berger if she could have Mike Kaluta put a tombstone on the cover of that issue, with words along the lines of “D. MISHKIN R.I.P” — which I’m sure Mike would have done gorgeously—but she felt uneasy. Just superstitious enough that she’d rather not tempt the Angel of Death to turn my way.

Justin: Mike Kaluta did some some gorgeous covers for this series, but that one cover of Andrew Bennett crying tears of blood haunted me intensely as a kid. It creeped me out to no end. I had to keep that comic flipped over face-down in my collection. I was a squeamish kid.

cover of House of Mystery #310 (1982) illustrated by Mike Kaluta 

Justin: By issue #310, House of Mystery was one of the last hold-outs of the anthology format (i.e., House of SecretsUnexpected, and Weird Wars had all been cancelled by now.) "I...Vampire" was easily the strongest feature in that title (it became a monthly feature after issue #301), with fans often writing in for an ongoing "I...Vampire" series. Surely you and Cohn would've been the natural choices to turn this into an ongoing. I'm sure this is more of a question for DC editorial, but why did an ongoing "I...Vampire" series never materialize?

Dan: You’re right that the people who made editorial and business decisions would be better placed to answer this question, but given the fact that House of Mystery was canceled a couple of issues after “I…Vampire” ended, I think it’s safe to say that actual sales did not reflect the intense devotion of letter-writing fans (as much as we appreciated that!). I can’t imagine that the folks at DC were prepared to say, “Hey, the book is failing with this feature on the cover of every issue, but maybe it will sell if we start with #1 and remove the small House of Mystery logo.”

Justin: The last chapter in issue #319 concluded with Andrew Bennett dying. Was it your (you and Cohn's) decisions to kill off Andrew Bennett?

Dan: That was Gary and my decision. We knew that the series and the book were both ending and we wanted to have the series conclude with real finality. So we gave Bennett his dramatic swan song and a death that we did our damnedest to insure could not be reversed. Though someone later found a way to do just that.

cover of House of Mystery #319 (1983) -- the last "I... Vampire" issue -- illustrated by Mike Kaluta

Dan Mishkin is one of my favorite writers -- not just because he's game to answer all of my precarious questions about DC comics from the 80s or because he has an encyclopedic knowledge of everything that was going on back then (at this rate, I will probably end up inadvertently ghostwriting his biography) -- but because he's worked on almost all of my favorite DC titles throughout the 80s. Look for more Dan Mishkin interviews in upcoming articles (and in our next zine).


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