Amethyst Special Feature: Interview with Gary Cohn and Dan Mishkin

It is not a secret that I’m a huge Amethyst fan! Amethyst isn’t available in a collected edition but it is well worth visiting the back issue bins at your local comic book store to collect the series, especially the first 12 issue mini-series.
Amethyst co-creators Gary Cohn and Dan Mishkin graciously agreed to answer a few questions from me via e-mail.

1) How did you come to be involved with Amethyst? Were the characters sketched out before you came aboard, or did you do the bulk of the world building and character development?

GARY: Amethyst was purely ours, and predated our work with DC. I don’t recall if Dan’s first daughter, Grace, was born yet when we were graduate students together at the Department of Popular Culture Studies at Bowling Green State in Ohio, but I think she might have been, which would contribute to our having been thinking about stories for girls. We had adjacent desks. We were teaching assistants…Dan and I have been friends since our mid-teens, and he came there a year after I’d started. We were seriously trying to break into comics and had started a correspondence with an editor at DC, Jack Harris, that eventually led to our first sales. Anyway, we’d sit around the office and brainstorm comics ideas, and one day one of us noted there wasn’t much of anything for girls. So we started back-and-forthing ideas (our best work mode) and started talking about the archetypal “girl” story…your parents aren’t really your parents, you’re a magical princess from a fairy tale realm…a changeling. And that’s the name we settled on: Changeling.

The idea only went so far, and then it became just one of a bunch of ideas we had. A few years passed, I moved to NYC, Dan stayed in Michigan, we worked as a team by phone. Somehow (I don’t remember now) someone at DC, maybe editor Dave Manak, asked if we had anything interesting and I started telling him about Changeling. He suggested we work up a proposal. Dan and I started talking that night. The breakthrough came when he came up with the name “Amethyst,” and suddenly the name GEMWORLD popped up too…and we started researching gem lore, and we were off and running! Sometime later Manak mentioned Ernie Colon. I said I loved his work, and that’s how Ernie came aboard. Once he started visually imagining the series more and more ideas came. The three of us created everything, with editorial input from Manak and, I seem to recall, Len Wein.

DAN: Gary’s recollection lines up with mine for the most part, though there are a few things I remember differently or can just flesh out. First of all, my daughter Grace was born when we’d already been doing work for DC, a few years after we came up with the idea. She did have some influence, though: I remember sitting in an easy chair with her in my arms and a pad of paper on the arm of the chair, and writing dialogue for Dark Opal to speak to Amethyst along the lines “You’re nothing but a babe in arms compared to me!” And then realizing where the line came from.

Dave Manak asked us initially to propose an ongoing eight-page series for one of the “mystery” anthology books he was editing, and somehow it turned into its own solo book (the same thing happened when we created Blue Devil). And I still have a distinct recollection of the moment the name Amethyst popped into my head as I stood in the kitchen in my apartment in Flint, Michigan. And the excited phone call with Gary that followed.

As for character building and world building, I have to echo Gary and make sure we give tons of credit to Ernie. Even though Gary and I came up with all the basic ideas, everything that Ernie did was an inspiration to refine and shape and often go in new directions — I learned lots about who the characters were from the way Ernie drew them. I think, by the way, that I was the one who proposed Ernie as the artist because I really liked his work on The Grim Ghost in the seventies…something that Ernie found a little shocking because he tends to see only the flaws in his older work.

2) Aside from Amethyst, who was your favorite member of the supporting cast to write about and why?

GARY: I loved Dark Opal. There’s a great sketch of him by Ernie, drawn with Sharpie, framed on my wall, inscribed, “to the model”. Ernie always claimed he’d based the character’s look on me. I loved his villainy, and I loved thinking up ways to express it. He was utterly without conscience, loyalty, integrity…and yet he was utterly fearless, utterly a warrior, really smart, and totally creepy. By the way, take a look if you can at my old BARREN EARTH and CONQUEROR OF THE BARREN EARTH from about the same time. Also with strong female protagonist, and the villain of CONQUEROR, Zhengla, is a close cousin to Dark Opal.

DAN: Gary insisted that Dark Opal be absolutely a villain…not misunderstood, not good according to his own lights, and with no planet Lexor where everyone worshiped him as a hero. That was a smart move. But partly because Opal was straightforward and a little operatic in his villainy, I think I may have found Carnelian more fun to write. He was both craven and self-inflated, and he always felt slightly out of place, which is something I can relate to. We mentioned Ernie’s contributions before, and one of the things he did was entertain himself (and us) by sometimes writing dialogue on the art boards that was far too risque to be published, but really pointed to the essence of the character. Ernie pinpointed Carnelian’s key traits in that way.

3) Amethyst’s romance with Prince Topaz didn’t work out so well. Did you have any plans for an alternate romance for Amethyst?

GARY: I don’t remember what I planned for Amethyst romantically in the later series. I kinda think things would have worked out with Topaz. It was a fairy tale, after all.

DAN: Actually, although we played with the Amethyst-Topaz romance, I think it was something we instinctively put brakes on, and for a very good reason: in almost every way that counted, Amethyst was still a 13-year-old girl, and it would have been hugely inappropriate for her to have anything even close to a consummated romance with an adult man on the Gemworld. As a girl’s fantasy of romance, as a way of probing the idea of having a sexual identity, it was fine. But if it was ever going to get to the happily ever after stage, a number of years of Amy’s earth life would have had to pass, I think.

4) Dark Opal was a very distinct villain. Did you influence his character design, or is that something that Ernie Colon came up with?

GARY: See answer #2!

DAN: The look that Ernie came up with for Dark Opal, and some other aspects of the book, also grew out of the fact that he did the Amethyst preview on scratchboard. Ernie’s other hugely successful idea for the character was giving him the cameo clasp with a face that always mirrored Opal’s expression.

5) One of the aspects of Amethyst’s characterization that I always enjoyed was the way she would solve magical problems on the Gemworld using knowledge that she’d gotten from junior high. Was it a challenge to work these Earth elements into the larger story?

GARY: Yes. (grin)

DAN: But it really did seem to be important. We were indulging in the off on another world fantasy, but we wanted to ground her as the all-American kid she was.

6) Was the intended audience for Amethyst pre-teen girls (my age when I started reading it) or were you aiming for a broader readership? Do you think the reception to Amethyst would be different if it came out today, when teachers and librarians are more aware of the value of comics and graphic novels?

See answer #1. We designed Amethyst for girls (along with a wider audience), although we were a bit shaky about what that meant initially. When Karen Berger became editor we finally had a “girly” viewpoint in the mix. Karen and I had many differences and I tend to deprecate her contribution, but to give her her due, she helped us focus and develop a female viewpoint. Dan and I have often pointed out to each other that the attempted rape in the first issue was a big mistake, very much a male mistake, and if we had a do-over, that would not have made the cut.

I don’t know that Amethyst COULD come out fresh today. It was a product of its time. Still, I think it’s a product DC has mismanaged from the start. It should have been huge. There was a toy line planned early on, but it was dithered with forever, and by the time anyone was ready to move on it, Mattel had introduced She-Ra, and that was the end of that. I do think that Amethyst should be collected, digitally recolored, and packaged for the Manga market. But given the many bad things DC has done with Amethyst, I doubt they’d be able to manage that or do anything with her that I’d approve of. I don’t have a desire to do anything else with Amethyst (as opposed to Blue Devil, which I’d love to take a last shot at), because that first 12 issues was complete. But IF I did get an offer to try something with Amethyst again…maybe Amy is all grown up, NEVER returned to GEMWORLD after she saved it the first time…but now GEMWORLD reaches out for her daughter, Angie…

DAN: This was without question intended for girls. Unlike the work on Wonder Woman that I did at roughly the same time, I didn’t feel we needed to make adjustments to rope in a boy audience. For some insane reason, DC thought this was something worth giving a shot, although there was nothing in anyone’s understanding of the marketplace that would have supported that. On the other hand, there was Jenette Kahn, a publisher who I think sincerely wished that more girls could be reached by DC’s comics.

And Gary’s right about Karen Berger’s viewpoint being valuable; she reached into her own experience in a way that helped us. Although as Gary also notes, none of us grasped quite what we were doing with the suggested assault early in issue 1 (the elements of dialogue, line art and coloring came together in a way that made it much more raw than I think we were intending, but then we’re supposed to be professionals who consider what the actual finished product will look like).

As to what it might be like if Amethyst came out new today, I think it’s true that it couldn’t be as fresh as it was then. Not because it’s dated, since I believe it’s pretty timeless, but because as the comics industry has developed, it would be less unusual now than it was then. So there’s the conundrum: DC took a bit of a risk given the times back then, but despite their effort could never really put things together on the marketing and licensing end; whereas today it might seem more like a promotable property, but is less interesting to them. I still don’t get why they don’t try to do something with the material that’s already out there — collect it in a trade, pitch with gusto to Hollywood. Those things have been discussed, as has doing a retelling in a manga format. I even put together, at Karen’s suggestion, an outline that restructured the 12-issue maxi-series into a six volume manga story, but nothing came of it. It did make me start imagining what else I might do with the character after that initial story of her discovery of the Gemworld and defeat of Dark Opal. And I’ll bet if DC said the word, I could even convince Gary and Ernie it was worth revisiting our creation.