Movie News & Reviews

‘Suicide Squad’ recruits a villain with Kansas roots

Lawrence-based writer Jai Nitz created DC’s El Diablo out of a desire to see a Mexican superhero that reflected his family’s heritage.
Lawrence-based writer Jai Nitz created DC’s El Diablo out of a desire to see a Mexican superhero that reflected his family’s heritage. dfrese@kcstar.com

To paraphrase your friendly neighborhood comic book cliche, with great failure sometimes comes great opportunity.

Or at least great opportunities for self-reflection.

Take El Diablo. The flame-throwing DC Comics character featured in the highly anticipated “Suicide Squad” movie, opening Friday, has gone through several iterations since his creation as a Zorro knockoff in 1970.

In 2006, the character was re-imagined as a fiery spirit of vengeance by Lawrence comics creator Jai (rhymes with “by”) Nitz.

The series lasted all of six issues.

“If I’m not mistaken, ‘El Diablo’ No. 6 is the worst-selling title in the history of DC Comics to that point,” Nitz said. “And I don’t think it’s been beaten.”

“Suicide Squad” (the movie) sets loose a ragtag bunch of DC Comics bad guys — Harley Quinn, Deadshot, Killer Croc, Boomerang — on an even badder menace to society. That the squad includes an obscure character created by a Lawrence writer, an Iowa artist and an inker from Baldwin City, Kan., has to be some sort of minor Midwest miracle.

Nitz works in an office above a comic book store (natch). Behind a wooden Hobbit door and surrounded by action figures, movie posters, luchador masks and collections of comic books, the 40-year-old writer bangs out titles for several comics publishers.

When Nitz was a kid, comics were his safe harbor. His father worked for the Defense Department, and the family relocated from town to town, state to state, until they finally landed in the Kansas City area. No matter where he went, Spider-Man and the X-Men remained the same.

Now, he’s living a dream he concocted as a youth.

“When I was a kid, I read comics, and my dad said, ‘He’s reading!’ ” Nitz said. “Eventually some of the comics started becoming valuable, and my dad said, ‘They’re worth money!’ And then I was 16 or 17 and I said, ‘I want to write comics for a living.’ And my dad said, ‘I’ve ruined my son’s life!’ It took him a long time to come around to the fact that this was going to be my career.”

Nitz persevered, ultimately working his way onto a Batman title for DC Comics in the mid-2000s. During a visit to the publisher’s New York offices, an editor asked for his passion project.

He was ready.

“I said, ‘I’m Latino, specifically Tejano and Mexican. There are no Mexican superheroes. I want to make a Mexican superhero,’ ” he said. “And they said ‘Really?’ and I said, ‘Yes!’ and I had my pitch ready to go.”

The original El Diablo was a white guy, which Nitz said “was the biggest load of (expletive) that has ever stalked the earth.” Nitz reimagined him as the antihero Chato Santana, a former Mexican-American gangster given mystical fire powers to become hell’s assassin.

To draw the book, Nitz and his editor chose Iowa-based artist Phil Hester and his inking partner, Ande Parks of Baldwin City, both of whom he had known since he was a kid working in Johnson County comic book stores.

“My best friends in comics — my mentors — were going to be drawing a book I was writing,” Nitz said.

As soon as the first issue hit the stands, however, Nitz’s editor and champion took a job at another company. Subsequently, the title struggled to find an audience.

“Sometimes the marketplace just doesn’t smile on you,” inker Parks said. “I get people who come up and say, ‘Oh, we loved “El Diablo” ’ and I think, ‘That’s cool. Too bad there weren’t twice as many of you.’ It just didn’t click for some reason. But as you can see, sometimes these things pop up again in ways you don’t expect.”

In the film, El Diablo/Chato Santana is played by Jay Hernandez (from two of the “Hostel” movies, “Bad Moms”), who stars alongside Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, Will Smith as Deadshot and Jared Leto as the Joker.

In the parlance of the day, the film is tracking a yuuuuge $125 million opening. This is great news for Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment, which is looking to light a fire under its super-franchises after the spring’s meh “Batman v Superman.”

In addition to El Diablo, Parks and Hester worked on Green Arrow, now featured in a CW series, and Ant-Man, which was a big Marvel movie starring Kansas City’s Paul Rudd. Ant-Man’s author at the time was Robert Kirkman, who created “The Walking Dead.”

“I think maybe that was my fate in the early 2000s — to do comics that were slightly ahead of the curve,” Hester said. “Not in terms of quality or groundbreaking in any way, but I did Ant-Man and then El Diablo, and here 10 years later both of those characters are on the big screen.”

After three decades in comics, Hester is getting accustomed to the drill.

“I just got a residual check for a character we created in the Green Arrow comics being in the ‘Arrow’ TV series,” Hester said. “His name’s Brick. He doesn’t look anything like the character we created, but I will still cash the check.”

Whether he and Nitz receive any money for the El Diablo that shows up Friday in cinemas is still up in the air. Nitz said DC has told him they’d receive something, even though he had nothing to do with putting Chato Santana in the current Suicide Squad comic or the movie.

El Diablo is in the movie thanks to director David Ayer’s wife, Maria, also of Latino heritage.

“When I met him, I said, ‘Thank you for using El Diablo. You’re making my life so much better,’ ” Nitz said. “And he said, ‘My wife would kill me if I didn’t.’ 

Nitz has no idea whether El Diablo makes it through the movie — “It’s not called ‘Everybody Lives Squad,’ ” he said. He’s nonetheless thrilled.

“In a way, that wouldn’t ever have happened if I hadn’t taken that initial step and jumped off the cliff and stuck to my convictions of making a superhero that reflected me and my family,” he said. “There are going to be people who know El Diablo from the movie who don’t follow comic books. That’s ridiculous to me.”

David Frese: 816-234-4463, @DavidFrese

Where to read more

The original six issues of “El Diablo” have been collected in “El Diablo: The Haunted Horseman.” Here’s where you can find more work of Jai Nitz, Ande Parks and Phil Hester:

Jai Nitz: He’s a writer on “Suicide Squad Most Wanted: Boomerang/El Diablo.” His Dark Horse series “Dream Thief,” with art by Kansas City-based artist Greg Smallwood, also is available in two collections.

Ande Parks: The artist and writer is transitioning to a career as a writer and novelist. He is the writer on “Ciudad,” a kidnapping story he conceived with the Russo brothers, directors of “Captain America: Civil War.” He inked Vertigo’s pyromaniac firefighter story “Slash and Burn,” which will be collected in a trade paperback soon.

Phil Hester: He writes a book called “Mythic” for Image Comics and another called “Gold Key Alliance” for Dynamite Comics. His DC Comics “Deathstroke” Annual No. 2, featuring the Teen Titans and “Arrow” villain, is now on stands.

David Frese, dfrese@kcstar.com

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