The Secrets of DC’s New Batman Era

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This article contains spoilers for Batman #118.

There’s no bigger single title in the DC Comics library right now than the core Batman book. Consistently the book where the future of the Dark Knight is made each month, it’s also been the DC title with perhaps the longest unbroken run of the highest-possible-octane creative teams in superhero comics over the last 15 years. Since 2006, Batman has been written by Grant Morrison, Scott Snyder, Tom King, and James Tynion IV, each bringing their own flavor to the book over extended, sprawling runs.

The latest writer to hit the bat-jackpot is Joshua Williamson, who has had a string of creative successes of his own over the last few years, but who is perhaps best known for an unbroken five year run on The Flash, where he renewed and restored countless elements of not just Barry Allen’s history, but the entire Flash legacy. Williamson takes over writing chores on DC’s biggest superhero book with Batman #118, with art by Jorge Molina, in a story that introduces a brand new villain, sees the return of some old favorite costume design elements, and brings back concepts from Grant Morrison’s beloved tenure on Batman.

It’s quite an opening statement for a new Batman writer, and Williamson was kind enough to tell us all about it.

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You have some big shoes to fill. There have been a string of incredible Batman writers over the last 15 years who all came in with a very specific kind of mission statement. Obviously in addition to Batman: RIP, Grant Morrison had that kind of Roger Moore, James Bond, epic feel. Scott Snyder brought elements of horror, Tom King brought elements of romance. What is the Josh Williamson flavor for a big Batman run like this?

I wanted to bring fun. I wanted to kind of boil Batman down to just his point of view. I’m friends with Tom King and Scott Snyder and James Tynion IV, and working with them and talking with them about what they were doing on Batman over the years really made me realize kind of what I wanted to do when it was my turn. I think telling a story that focuses on Bruce’s point of view, and then having some fun with the character and kind of bringing a little bit of a lighthearted sort of vibe to it.

I really was a big fan of Batman when I was a kid, I still am to this day. I have a Batman tattoo. I have a ton of Batman stuff here in my office. I really focused in on what were the things I really liked about Batman and even going and looking at like some of the Tim Burton movies and the things when I was a kid that really I gravitated toward. I wanted to bring some of those elements to it, just really wanted to play around with making Batman sort of a fun book for a little bit.

When you were writing The Flash, we talked a lot about growing up having read a lot of the same Flash comics. So I’m curious about which Batman runs from back in the day you’re really pointing to as your own kind of inspiration for the kind of fun that you want to bring here.

Well, I’m really inspired by a lot of the ‘90s Batman books. If you look at things going from Knightfall all the way through to No Man’s Land, that’s a lot of the Batman books that I was reading as a kid and going through high school and a little bit of college. I was really a big fan of that era of Batman. And by the time you get around to what Grant Morrison was doing, that’s when I was already in my 20s, and an adult, and already thinking about comics and trying to write books. 

I love The Long Halloween, I love Matt Wagner’s Faces, I was a really big fan of Gotham Central, which was one of my favorite books when it was coming out. I have a huge shelf of Batman books in my office. It’s floor to ceiling, and I’m looking at [Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee’s] Hush, and some of the stuff that Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka did.

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I think Knightfall was when I became addicted to Batman. I feel like that was the first really big Batman event. Batman: The Animated Series is a big influence on me. The Tim Burton movies, particularly the first one. I mean I love the second one [Batman Returns], but I think the first one really influenced me a lot with how I saw Batman and the voice that I gave him.

This first issue feels relatively scaled back. Batman is less reliant on his toys and gadgets, you kind of get right into the idea of him as this intimidating figure. So is that something that you really plan on continuing in terms of stripping away some of the more high tech elements of Batman?

I mean, that was started with James Tynion IV’s run. When you go back and look at his original stuff, when he started doing his Batman run two years ago, a big thing that James wanted to do was he wanted to play with all the toys. He had a plan for it, he was like, “I want to present a lot of new toys for Batman on different levels.” I mean gadgets, but also characters. And then he wanted to scale it all back. Joker War happens and Batman loses them all. I wanted to keep that going and then really push it. Like, taking him out of Gotham, taking it so he doesn’t have all the kind of gadgets he used to have and making it a bit more of a detective story.

When you look at Year One and you look at Long Halloween, I like this version of Batman that’s a little bit more cerebral and a little bit less reliant on his toys. But don’t get me wrong, he does have toys. I just wanted to kind of scale it back a bit. I think that the last few years, Batman has had a lot of really big stuff happening all the time, a lot of explosions and a lot of really big stories. I love all those stories. I want to definitely kind of bring it back down to just Bruce’s POV for a bit and scale it back to being just him and a case, and him having to solve that case. That’s part of why the issue opens with him just stopping two robbers.

Don’t get me wrong, the story gets bigger and bigger as we go. But I definitely want to start a smaller place that is just Bruce and just his point of view. And that’s another thing, there has been a lot of focus on a lot of supporting characters [recently]. Starting with Tom King’s run, with Gotham Girl and Catwoman, and James had Ghostmaker and Harley Quinn and all these other characters. I wanted to kind of get right back down to just Bruce’s point of view and just tell a story about Bruce. That’s why in the first issue he’s in every scene, we never really cut away from him.

I think it was James Tynion who said something recently about how at this point, this is the furthest along Batman has ever been in his career in DC Comics continuity. Which is kind of weird to say. I know any attempt to place a real timeline on Batman is just going to give everybody a headache and it doesn’t really work. But how do you see that timeline? How do you see a Batman who by any stretch has to be this kind of elder statesman of the DC Universe right now? What is your own kind of headcanon for where he sits in terms of his career at the moment for this book?

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Oh man, that’s interesting. I do have my own headcanon and I don’t always try to force my own headcanon onto the book, because it’s my headcanon. I mean, he is definitely the elder statesman. He is the leader, he is the other grown up in the room. I definitely fall into this idea of he is a certain generation of characters like the JSA, and then you have the Teen Titans, and you have the newer characters. I definitely think about a lot of that stuff. I think a lot about the generational aspects and the legacy aspects of the DCU. Batman is one of the dads, for lack of a better phrase, of the DCU. 

As far as his career, I don’t necessarily like to place a date on it. I think when you look at Batman: The Animated Series, which is arguably one of the greatest versions of Batman ever, you look at how it’s very timeless. Because of certain things, you kind of can piece together where it takes place. You can kind of figure out where that story is, but at the same time you don’t need to, you don’t have to obsess over it. The goal is just to tell cool Batman stories. So I focus more on that than trying to get obsessed with the timeline. I’m a continuity junkie, so I’m always in that mindset of “everything happened” and I try to cherry pick certain things. I never try to put a date on it.

You told a four year Flash epic, where you touched on almost every aspect of Barry Allen’s history during that period. Do you have a similar wishlist for Batman and do you have a potential endpoint in place for your story, if you were to continue on this book for four years?

I definitely have a much shorter attention span than I did before. I learned so much working on The Flash but I don’t think I would ever stay on a book for that many issues again. I think I would do much shorter runs on things. With this book, I know where I want to end, I know the plans with DC, I know what my plans are for Batman in general. I think they’ll kind of surprise people once they see the big picture of it. It’s going to take some time to get there, but stuff I want to do with Batman and how I want to tell the Batman stories I want to tell, it’s a little bit less about going backward.

With Flash, so much of it was about honoring the past and in a lot of ways it was because the past had been kind of ignored, right? During New 52, by design we were trying to do all these new things and ignoring everything from before New 52. By the time we got to Rebirth, it was in the DNA of Rebirth to pay attention to the past, and honor the past, and bring the past forward. And so a lot of my Flash run is very much in love with the stuff that Geoff Johns and Mark Waid were doing. That was because it was about honoring these pieces that had been left behind, these toys that kind of had been put to the side, I was now using them again. So there was a focus on really trying to put the past back. 

That’s not the case with Batman. It’s less about looking backward. We have these conversations about influences, and we have these conversations about looking backward and looking at what’s come before. I’m not as obsessed with that on Batman as I was on Flash because so much of the Batman past had already been restored. It didn’t really go away. There’ve been some pieces don’t get me wrong and obviously a lot of those things have been rebuilt. That was also one of James’ priorities when he was working on Detective Comics and then on Batman. Here I’m more interested in just kind of moving forward a little bit and not being so obsessed with what came before in comparison.

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Speaking of Flash, you had a lot of fun pairing Bruce Wayne and Barry Allen a couple times in that run. Do think you’re going to team them up again on Batman?

Barry is off in another world right now. I do know the next time Barry and Bruce will see each other and it’s too soon to talk about.

Okay. How about this instead…has your perspective on how Bruce operates as a detective and an investigator, as opposed to how Barry operates as a detective and investigator, has that changed at all now that you’ve spent more time writing Bruce?

Yes and no. I have a relationship going deep with Batman. My two favorite DC characters are Batman and Flash, followed up by a lot of the Bat family characters. I have a lot of love for all of them, but those are the two that I clearly was always the most obsessed with as a kid and as an adult. 

I have a very clear idea of what Barry is and how he is as a detective and his obsession with a crime scene, his obsession with evidence and making sure it’s absolutely correct. But there’s a different kind of confidence that Batman has. Batman games things out very differently. I think that Barry for the most part is hopeful. He is hopeful and he is also very meticulous. So is Batman, but there’s something very different about it.

There’s a different kind of confidence that Batman has as a detective. There’s a different level of curiosity and concern and obsession too. They’re both obsessed, but just in different ways.

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I think that Barry talks to himself a lot, either as internal monologue or to other people, whereas Bruce is not that way. I think Bruce holds things much closer to himself. He’s much more guarded, not only as a character, but also as a detective. I think that Barry, when he starts to solve a case he wants to tell everybody about it, he wants to share all the information. He doesn’t hesitate in being like, “Well, here’s what I’ve discovered, and here’s why, and here’s what I’m going to do.”

I think that Bruce is much more quiet about it and doesn’t like to share that information. He wants to keep it to himself and he’s already thinking of the angles and he is already gaming it out differently.

I mean, I think at this point we know that Bruce is not a loner. It’s funny that the character that is most known for being “a loner” has the biggest family in comics outside of maybe the X-Men. Even with the Green Lanterns, I don’t think any of the Green Lanterns ever refer to any the other Green Lanterns as their kids [and] we consider a lot of the sidekicks Bruce’s kids. So that’s why I use the phrase family in that particular context. 

Batman has such a different voice in my head. I don’t have to hear the voices in my head with Barry, it was a steady flow. It was a stream of talking while as with Bruce, it’s much more quiet, thoughtful, and skeptical.

Abyss is a very striking character design. Where did this come from? And how does this character fit into the larger plans for the book? 

There’s a mystery with Abyss. There will be a little bit in this issue and it’s a slow burn to get there. And then once the mystery of Abyss is unlocked, it will unlock a much bigger story that we’ll explore throughout the year. How this actual person became Abyss is part of a bigger mystery. It’s a slow burn at first and then we’ll get there and then it’ll be like, “Oh, that’s what happened.”

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As far as their creation, the last few years, between things like City of Bane, Joker War, the Magistrate, Fear State with Scarecrow, Gotham City and Batman have really gone through hell. I wanted to bring Batman out of the darkness a bit. That’s why at the very beginning of #118 there’s fireworks. There’s literally fireworks that light the sky in Gotham and they light up Batman. That was partly me saying, we’re going to light this up. So the idea of having Batman getting lit up, that means there has to be something that is the opposite of that. That is the darkness that is trying to pull Batman back in.

Once I started thinking about that I was like, “Oh, okay. I need a character that operates in the dark.” And one of Batman’s greatest weapons and his greatest asset is his ability to operate in the dark, there should be somebody better at it than him. That’s where Abyss came from, and that’s where those conversations came from, and that’s where I was able to kind of write up what I thought about that character.

I gave it to Jorge Molina, who did an awesome design for it and he was doing amazing work on the issue. It looks beautiful. Mikel Janin came in to do some pages. Mikel does a couple pages in every issue and it just looks amazing, but that is where the Abyss stuff came from.

Do you see Abyss more as a Batman villain or as a DC Universe villain?

Abyss is a Batman Inc. villain. I want to get real specific with it. They’re connected to something bigger obviously, as you can tell with what’s going on at the end of the issue. But I would say they’re  a Batman villain and a Batman Inc. villain. Then there will be other pieces…the stuff that’s going on with Batman emotionally and the things that are going to happen later when we start getting into it with Batman and Damian, that’ll connect to the bigger picture that we’re building with Infinite Frontier and Justice League Incarnate. But Abyss is a very specific story about Batman and Batman Inc.

Batman Inc. is such a fun concept to revisit, but it feels like it is so inherently tied to the work that Grant Morrison did on the title. Because what they did with tying in all of these ridiculous elements of Batman history into this cohesive thing that is relevant to today. So at what point did you say that this has to be at least partially a Batman Inc. story?

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That came really early. We knew that Bruce was going to leave Gotham City. Originally when James was building out his plans for Batman, he had essentially pitched that Batman was going to leave Gotham. Because the Bat group is so cohesive right now and everyone’s working together, everyone across the Batman line started operating under the idea that Bruce was going to leave Gotham. When James left, and I started talking to them, the idea of Bruce leaving had to stay. I liked that idea because it helped me draw a line in the sand, and helped me take him in new directions.

But here’s the thing. If you’re going to do a story about Batman leaving Gotham, you’re doing a story about Batman going on this international adventure. That’s where Batman Inc. starts to play in. So really early on, Ben Abernathy, who’s a great Batman editor pitched to me, “Why don’t you use Batman Inc.?” And I love Batman Inc. I love the Batman and Robin stuff that Grant was doing. And I really liked Batman Inc. with Yanick Paquette and with Chris Burnham. So when Ben suggested Batman Inc, I was like, “I think that’d be a good idea, but I want to do something different with it.” Because all those stories are always about someone trying to kill Batman Inc. And I was like, “Well, let’s mix it up and have Batman Inc. kill somebody and Batman has to deal with it.” That was my pitch back, and that’s where we started running with it from there.

They’re not actually in it that much. We’ll have some stuff that gets revealed with them that takes them off the board for another two issues, I think. And then they’ll come back in a big way with the next story arc we’re doing after. That’s a bit of a spoiler, but I think they’re on the covers, so it’s not that much of a spoiler. They’ll be back in a big way, starting with the next story arc that we’re going to do, which is a really big one.

Was the decision to finally bring back the yellow oval, which is something that I have been agitating for on social media for years. Was this strictly a function of the Batman Inc. elements of the story? Or was this something that you wanted to see as well?

I asked for it many times. I like the Year One costume and the Hush costume, but I really, really like the oval. Looking at the stuff I was saying before about these things that influenced me, like the 1989 Batman movie and Batman Returns, the animated series, all those things have the oval. So I went to DC and I was like, “Here’s my pitch,” and they were like, “Well, there has to be another reason for him to have a new costume.” And I’m like, “Well, it’s also a Batman Inc. story. And he had the yellow Oval in Batman Inc.” 

I was able to convince them, and then we basically took the Batman Inc. costume and then we took the late 90s black costume that Batman would wear in JLA, and we basically combined them. We took a look at both of them, we gave it to Jorge Molina, we said, “These are the two influences, go with it.” And that’s where we got the new suit from.

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But yeah, the oval was something I really, really wanted. I wanted to say something, show that we were starting a new storyline and having a new costume always helps with that. But also for me, I just thought it’s such a cool visual. And I think people really know that oval. So I just wanted to bring it back for a little bit.

I love it. I don’t understand why DC has been so shy about it for the last decade or so.

I don’t think they’re shy about it at all. I think it just hasn’t been used. People like it, I don’t think there’s any weirdness about it. I think that Jim Lee’s Hush is a very important visual marker for Batman. That book sells like crazy to this day. It’s a massive evergreen. It’s probably the biggest evergreen outside of Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman: Court of Owls. That’s part of it. You have those two things, you have a Jim Lee and then you have Capullo, and they were creating the visual of Batman for arguably the last 20 years. Those images are so iconic and so popular that I think those are the images that get put forth for the most part out there into the world. 

I can’t take credit for this, but my buddy, Vinny Murphy, had this theory that “It should really be very simple. When Batman’s in Gotham, he’s wearing the suit without the yellow oval, and when he is with the Justice League, he’ll wear the blue and the gray and the yellow oval.” And I always thought that would’ve been a pretty fair compromise.

That’s really interesting. I think that’s super interesting. But since we’re talking about all this stuff, let me ask you a question. Do you wear the same clothes every day?

No, I don’t.

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Batman really should just wear costumes depending on the mission. It’s like you just said, if he’s in Justice League he wears this one. He’s going to go hang out with Batman Inc. he wears that one. Maybe it’s every Wednesday, he prefers to wear a certain type of costume, maybe he wants to have a blue inside lining to his cape. I think it’s okay for him to go out and wear different costumes depending upon what the mission is. I mean, even now with what we’re doing, I think you’ll notice that he doesn’t always wear the oval on everything he does over the next year. He wears different costumes this year, depending on what’s going on.

Batman #118 is on sale now. The mystery of Abyss will continue…

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