Warming the Cockles of His Heart: An Interview With Dan Berger

19 Nov

berger.jpg picture by PseudoPsychic 

Well, it’s finally here, I got to interview Dan Berger (for real, this time) the writer and artist of many notable projects behind the TMNT comic books.  We discuss in the interview the recent purchase of the creator-owned TMNT property by Nickelodeon, His future plans, his views on the TMNT universe, and some of his favorite music and movies.

Once again, I know that I said this to him every time we e-mailed back and forth for the interview (and the handful of other times I’ve e-mailed him), I am incredibly thankful for the opportunity to interview a wonderful writer, artist, and above all, someone who I truly admire, in order to show their viewpoint of the business and bring to light some things that fans may just not expect.

Also, Click to see a larger version of the cover for the penultimate issue of Tales by Dan.  This is the – basically – world premiere of the image on the interweb.

tale69cover.jpg picture by PseudoPsychic

I apologize for how the images are integrated into the interview… typically you can just make it look like a newspaper type and plunk the pictures so the Text fits around them, but I still haven’t figured out how to do this on WordPress.

ninjastrikes.jpg picture by PseudoPsychic

let’s dig in!

Thanks once again for doing this interview.

My pleasure. 🙂

How did Peter Laird break the news about the deal to the writers and  artists, or how did you find out about the deal (with Viacom/Nickelodeon for the Rights to all things TMNT)?

We had a staff meeting about it. Peter and Mirage’s CEO Gary Richardson couldn’t give us early indication that the sale was taking place due to a strict non-disclosure contract they had to sign to work on the deal. It wasn’t a secret that Peter was interested in selling if the right deal came along, so while it was a bit of a shock that it happened now, it wasn’t totally unexpected.
 
What was your personal reaction directly after the announcement walking around the Mirage office?
 
46cover.jpg picture by PseudoPsychic
 
Just sadness. I’ve been here for 20 years – far longer than most folks get a chance to do something these days – and I’ve loved just about every minute of it (not alotta fun answering the hate mail we got) and have always been extremely grateful for the opportunities that Peter and Kevin gave me. I know how lucky I’ve been to be a small part of the vast TMNT empire, so it’s very sad to see that luck run out – but unfortunately all good things come to an end.
 
 Any thoughts on whether or not Nickelodeon may approach you to help  jump start the TMNT or are they, for sure, starting with a whole new  creative team for this new era of TMNT?

Nick hasn’t approached any of the creators from Mirage – if anyone is  interested in trying to work for them, they’ll have to go to Nick.

What is your creative process like when writing your scripts for the comics?
 
For “Tales” we had to submit plots to Peter for approval – so I’d write 4-5 paragraph plots (sometimes a bit longer) that explained the story in full as briefly as possible. From there, Peter would usually request either further explanation for why something was being done, or changes that made him happier with the story. Some plots would take 2-3 drafts while a small minority were approved “as is.”
 
Once I have a plot approved, I do 4″ x 6″ breakdowns of the comic pages – not quite stick-figures, but very quick sketches of the pages, making notes regarding the script. Once the breakdowns are completed, I then write the script from the breakdowns.
 
You’ve written your fair share of comics over the last twenty years, do any stand out above the rest as your favorite?
 
 
I’m notoriously unhappy with my work as I always want it to be better than it is, so it’s hard to pick favorites. But if you twist my arm (yow!), the most gratifying thing I’ve written is “Tales” #55 (“A Day in the Life”) because it came out as I’d envisioned it and because it was so well received by the folks that read the book. I also have a soft spot for “Tales” #46 (“Temps”) and “Tales” #42 (“The Curious Case of Mr. Jones”).
 
To my count, you’ve drawn a handful of comics for the TMNT through the years, but have often pitched in to help out with inks, how does this work ethic come about for you guys?
 
I’ve only blown one deadline in 20 years – and that was by one day (and that was doing forty 4-panel comic strips in 14 days – which actually took me 15 days). I just stay up all night if necessary to make a deadline – and sometimes I’ll stay up all night finishing up work for someone who blew their deadline (which is why you’ll see me doing an odd job here or there on “Tales”). I don’t know where it comes from – probably my midwestern, farm town upbringing mixed with the knowledge that I’m damned lucky to have had the opportunity to do this stuff, so I never took it for granted by slacking off. I just really hate missing deadlines – drives me buggy. It’s actually easy to stay up all night working to meet a deadline, because if a deadline is looking like it might be missed, I can’t sleep anyways.
 
I have no idea if that answered your question – but it does show how neurotic I am about deadlines. 🙂
 
Do you still draw or are you focusing mostly on your writing duties?
 
I still draw, but I’ve gotten painfully slow at it over the years due to repetitive-stress injury to my hand (I foolishly use a death grip on the pencil/brush which took a real toll over the decades – so use a light touch, kids). Now I can only work for an hour or so before I have to take an hour or so break – which makes getting stuff done on time very difficult – and with my crazy deadline dementia, I don’t take on too many projects. Right now I’m working on “Tales” #69, which isn’t due ’til March – but it’s gonna take me every bit of that time to get it done because of the hand stress.
 
Like many people, I love telling stories, so I love writing – and it’s a helluva lot easier typing, “An army of skeletons runs down the hill” than it is to draw it. I’d love to be a full-time comic book writer, but I don’t have the drive or the personality to succeed as it requires a lot of schmoozing, and schmoozing is just about my least favorite thing to do. If I was good at communicating with people, I woulda never started writing/drawing stories to express myself. That’s a double-edged sword right there.
 
Many of your stories focus on fan favorite Leatherhead, is there any special insight that you can give to the character?
 
leatherheadbarred.jpg picture by PseudoPsychic
LH is a very intriguing character because his isolation is even worse than the Turtles’ since he is unique and on his own – his mentors left the planet, while the TMNT had Splinter to assist them (speaking of which, that loneliness is part of Splinter’s story, too – something I’d hoped to explore at some point between the two of them). There’s a lot to work with there. Those themes of loneliness and isolation are common in comics because the readers themselves often feel isolated from society (I know I do). So that’s why I relate to the big guy. Those issues are tricky to deal with because they can come off as being too heavy-handed and melodramatic – but there’s just so much fodder for stories with these characters, especially Leatherhead.
 
On a basic level, my favorite super hero is the Hulk – so I was naturally attracted to Leatherhead since he’s the big, green strong guy in the TMNT universe (and he’s also got some Bruce Banner in him since he studied science with the Utroms – so how could I resist?)
 
How do you go about writing the distinct personalities behind the turtles, and which character do you enjoy writing most?
 
I just try to stick with what Kevin and Peter created and illustrate that via the dialog. Raph using more slang, Mike being more colorful, Don using more polysyllabic verbiage and Leo being direct and terse. Raph has long been my favorite as I have the same problem with a short temper and cynical outlook on the world – but as I’ve gotten to be a geezer, I’m leaning more towards Mike’s outlook on life and he’s becoming a favorite. I love how Tristan Jones handled him in “Tales” #64.
 
I love how the issues you write typically involve some topic that is almost never even mentioned in other comic books like the viewpoint of the Foot enlistee in issue #46, the younger turtle take on #55, or the private school viewpoint of Shadow in the upcoming #67.
 
Ya gotta try to come up with something a bit different if you want Peter to approve your plots. 🙂
 
You also contrast these with tougher takes on the characters like Leatherhead or most recently issue #63 where the comic’s tough but sprinkled with light moments.  How do you strike this balance?
 
23cover.jpg picture by PseudoPsychic
 
I think it’s important to try to cover as many aspects of the human experience as possible to tell a good story. In a drama there can still be some humor. Even guys out on the frontline in deadly combat are cracking jokes to maintain their sanity – and just as important, their humanity. So trying to mix up the emotional impact of what I’m writing is a goal as it makes the tale relate to the reader’s life – and that’s the most important thing to me.
 
And what inspires you to focus on some topics that other comics don’t even imagine ever covering?
 
RaphaelLeatherhead.jpg picture by PseudoPsychic
 
Covering those humanistic topics is a TMNT trademark. All the guys here have done it – Kevin and Peter started it early on and I think it’s that element of the Turtles’ stories that made the comics so successful and dear to people. The writers here are phenomenal – Kevin, Peter, Jim Lawson, Steve Murphy and Michael Dooney have written fantastic stories and while Eric Talbot hasn’t written as much, he has awesome ideas. I’m just trying to follow in the footsteps of those guys as best I can – and it’s very challenging. I’ve read thousands of comics (as my overflowing closets can attest) and some of my very favorites are TMNT books written by those dudes – it’s been an honor to work with them.
 
Can you enlighten us on some hints as to your upcoming issues?
 
“Tales” 66 is a story about how the Madhattan Maulitia, a xenophobic organization, raised funds to get their anti-alien terrorist operation off the ground by kidnapping dogs and holding them for ransom – it’s wacky but hopefully it’ll be fun – Jim Lawson is drawing it in his inimitable style. “Tales” 67, as you mentioned, features Casey Jones’ daughter, Shadow, at her first day of kindergarten and the repercussions of her telling the truth about her family featuring fantastic art by Dario Brizuela and Andres Ponce. Finally, I’m writing and drawing “Tales” #69 which features Shadow in the post-apocalyptic future hunting someone down. There probably won’t be any humor in this issue since it may be my last TMNT comic. I’m trying to channel more of that gritty Eastman and Laird atmosphere from TMNT #1 to come full circle at the end of my run.
 
I’m super excited about your swan song.  Post-apocalyptic Shadow sounds like it will be a blast!

tale69cover.jpg picture by PseudoPsychic

I hope it lives up to your expectations. I’ll do my best.

However, the continuity issue comes up… will this be for sure something that will happen in the future or just an imagined story?

It’s a future story – definitely not imaginary.

Is Tales #67 your last writing project for Mirage or are you involved with issues #68, 69, or 70?
 
#69 is my swan song. #68 was written by Jake Black with art by Jim Lawson and #70 is a “Return to New York” story being done by Jim and Eric Talbot. That will be a momentous sending-off for the title.
 
Are you going to continue managing the Mirage Publishing site through the years or do your duties end in the tentative time of May 2010?
 
In all likelihood, publishing will be closing its doors in May.
 
Do you have any other possible comic projects you may work on after TMNT?
 
No comics planned – I tried self-publishing and that was a colossal failure – so I’m not keen on doing that again. As I mentioned, I suck at self-promotion, so I seriously doubt I’ll ever be making the rounds at cons trying to dig up work.
 
I’ve got several children’s book projects I’m gonna sit down and put together. Back before I wanted to do comics (when I was like 5), I wanted to do children’s books – it’s always been a goal but it got sidetracked when I lucked into the Mirage gig. Now that Mirage is going away, it’s time to get back to my ancient goal.If you continue through your tentative plans for a children’s book, 
 
What could we possibly expect?

I’ve got several varied ideas, but I can’t really talk about them without giving away too much – but they involve monsters, cats, and of course, kids.

Will you do the art as well as the writing duties?

42cover.jpg picture by PseudoPsychic

Yeah – but that’s a tough row to ho these days. Publishers typically want someone to write (usually a celebrity) and then they’ll assign an illustrator of their choice to do the artwork – but I’m not particularly interested in doing it that way, since I’m not a celebrity and I feel too close to my ideas to let someone else draw them, at least initially. If I were to be fortunate enough to have some success and be able to do lots of projects, I wouldn’t mind working with other artist because there are so many out there far more talented than I am (which is one reason why writing for “Tales” has been so much fun).

 What are some of your other future plans outside of comics?
 
Beyond the book things, I just dunno right now. I graduated fromcollege waaaaaaay back in 1989, so I don’t really have any employable skills in this here modern era – so I may go back to school to learn how to do things the way they’re done nowadays. As anyone who’s been to the TMNT web site can attest, I do not know the first thing about putting together a pro-level web site, so I might delve into that and learn how to do it. I’m going to need to find a job with health benefits, so that’s the most important thing (and in this lousy economy, no easy feat).
 
Unfortunately, I figured I’d give you some perspective and mention that I was born in 1989…
 
45cover.jpg picture by PseudoPsychic

Nothing unfortunate about it – I know how old I am. I feel it every day. 😉

As I tell all my buddies, getting old sucks, but it beats the 
alternative.

Is your grand wall of TMNT toys still going to hang up in your office?

For awhile, but I’m going to be auctioning them on eBay at some point 
next year to pay the bills.
 
What’s your favorite music/band/musician?
 
That’s funny because my wife and I were just talking about this the other day. I’m a metalhead to the core, but I listen to everything 
other than opera (that kinda singing bugs me – dunno why). That said, lately my tastes are growing significantly more mellow as I’m trying to be happier in my geezerhood (and I gotta say, metal music doesn’t make me feel angry – it makes me feel alive – but there’s no denying the lyrics are predominantly negative and can put me in a sour mood). I just went to see Blackmore’s Night a couple weeks ago in Boston and it was a blast – the crowd exuded so much positive energy – it was truly a “magical” experience. I’ve been listening to them for ten years now, but that night I realized that they’re by far my favorite band currently releasing albums. Ritchie Blackmore has written many of my all-time favorite songs throughout his career – guy is a genius.
 
I’ve got over 3,000 CDs of various genres, so it’s really difficult to make a list as I’m sure to leave out some stuff I love. Off the top of my head, all-time favorites that I’ll always be playing on iTunes are Rainbow (with Ronnie James Dio), Black Sabbath (Ozzy and Dio eras), Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Iron Maiden, Motörhead, Judas Priest, Van Halen (with David Lee Roth), AC/DC, Thin Lizzy and Rose Tattoo. I also love Enya, Bill Douglas, 2002, Loreena McKennitt, Jimmy Buffett, Brad Paisley, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Tom Waits and The Pogues. More “recent” metal bands I listen to frequently are Nile, Iced Earth, Korpiklaani, Agalloch, Blind Guardian, Kivimetsän Druidi, Mastodon, Emperor, Negurã Bunget, Novembers Doom, Shadows Fall, Opeth, Týr and Slough Feg – but there are literally hundreds more bands that I enjoy. I could be typing half the day.
 
What are you currently reading?
 
The “Red Hulk” trade paperbacks. I read Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” recently and it was awesome (first time I’d ever read it), but I needed some lighter fare and turned to graphic novels. I’m really looking forward to reading the latest Terry Pratchett novel – after Tolkien, he’s my favorite writer – but I asked for that as a Christmas present, so it’ll be awhile before I dig into it.
 
What is/are your favorite film(s)?
 
“Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” (from 1971) and “My Neighbor Totoro” are my most favorite films. I’m not a movie buff (more into music) – but I dig the usual suspects in science fiction and fantasy – but those two flicks really warm the cockles of my heart every time I see them – which is at least once per year.
 
What is the comic that continues to inspire you?
 
Too many to pick just one. Lately it’s been “The Goon” by Eric Powell – his artwork is just beautiful and the stories are fun. I like fun… and beautiful artwork ain’t so bad either.  I recently read the Thor trades with art by Olivier Coipel, and his work is just awe inspiring. Stuff I’ll always love and go back to again and again are “The Spirit” comics by Will Eisner, “Captain Marvel” by C.C. Beck, “Cerebus” by Dave Sim and Gerhard, “Bone” by Jeff Smith, “Calvin & Hobbes” by Bill Watterson and, of course, the TMNT comics.
 
What, in general, inspires you?
 
Sometimes it can just be a beautiful day, taking a walk and feeling glad to be alive which creates the urge to be creative. Usually it’s 
comics, books and the occasional movie or TV series (“Firefly” needs to be mentioned here – Joss Whedon is a fountain of inspiration for me). When I see something that moves me emotionally and/or spiritually, it ignites the drive in me to try to create something that contains that elusive “magic” in hopes that the work I do might help someone in some way (just as the thing that inspired me helped me). The “Wheel of Life” thing – if something inspires me, it makes me want to try to do something that might inspire someone else. It’s basically “pay it forward,” I guess. I’m hoping to do stuff that some folks will find precious. That’s kinda corny, but it’s what keeps me going. We’re all in this together and life is short – so I’m just hoping to do stuff that’s meaningful.
Practice.jpg picture by PseudoPsychic
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