The finish line is in sight! After skipping from Jeff Lemire to Nick Spencer and then from Spencer to Paul Cornell, the spotlight of CBR’s DC Writer’s Relay has fallen back to its original interviewer as Paul Cornell speaks to Scott Snyder!
In case you’re just joining us, each day this week, one up-and-coming writing talent from DC Universe has interviewed one of his peers about their work, life, career and more. And on each successive day, the interviewee became interviewer taking the mic forward to the next round in the run. Today CBR News is proud to present our final installment leg of the run, and it’s jam-packed with new and colorful info on the latest writer of DC’s namesake: “Detective Comics.”
Though he broke onto the comics scene quickly and to great fanfare, Scott Snyder had eyes on writing for the four-color medium for a long time. A comics lifer, the writer made his living in the world of prose fiction until his contribution to the Â superhero short story anthology “Who Can Save Us Now?” brought him to the attention of DC and Marvel Comics. After a handful of smaller comics projects, Snyder gained international notice when he tapped horror legend Stephen King to write a serial story as part of his Vertigo Comics launch “American Vampire.” Over the course of the first five issues, the parallel stories by Snyder and King illustrated by Rafael Albuquerque brought more attention to the writer, and DC soon brought him under exclusive contract to take over flagship series “Detective Comics” with a multi-layered mystery called “The Black Mirror” drawn by Jock as well as Commissioner Gordon co-feature drawn by Francesco Francavilla, the second issue of which hits next week.
Below, Snyder details how he started with designs on being a comics artist before his writing life brought him back to the medium in a round about way, shares the hilarious true tales of recruiting Stephen King to co-wrire “American Vampire,” looks deep into the character of Dick Grayson to make “Detective” a multi-layered read and gives some hints on what fans will be seeing in the run in 2011. Read on!
Paul Cornell: Basically, you have a reputation that’s rather more literary than the rest of us. You seem to come very much from the world of books, which is something I aspire to but aren’t recognized as. I wanted to start by asking about the idea that you’ve very much built a career out of Americana. What takes you from kind of Raymond Carver short stories to “Detective Comics?” What’s the path that got you there?
Scott Snyder: That’s a great question. Well, I grew up as a huge comic fan since I was a kid, and for me, some of my biggest influences were both literary and comic-driven. Things like “Dark Knight Returns” or “The Killing Joke” or “Year One” loomed as large as the stuff I read from a more literary context – the Great Gatsby, Raymond Carver. As I got older, I wanted to be a comic book illustrator, but I wasn’t quite good enough. I was into it through high school and almost through college. I went to college near the Rhode Island School of Design, hoping to take some illustration classes there, but the scheduling was too hard, so I just fell into the writing side of it. I had a couple great classes in college that were training you to be more of a literary writer, and so I fell into that groove with it.
But I never stopped reading comics or hoping to write them. So what happened for me was that I wrote a collection of short stories called “Voodoo Art” and was asked to be in an anthology that was all about literary writers coming up with new superheroes. That was in 2007 or so, and I wrote a story about a boy who was in the Navy during the Bikini Atoll tests and gets irradiated. A couple editors from DC and Marvel came to a reading for the book and asked a few of us if we were interested in writing comics, and I had a whole slew of comics in my bag that night. I was over the moon about it, and I got a chance to pitch a couple of one-shots to Marvel, first for a smaller thing starring the original Human Torch for this “Timely Comics” thing and then a couple of backups for the X-Men anthologies. It just took off from there. I got a chance to pitch to Mark Doyle at Vertigo after that, and I had “American Vampire” that I’d been thinking about for a long time.
Cornell: Who were the editors that came to see you that night?
Snyder: It was Mark Doyle, who’s still the editor on “American Vampire,” and Jeanine Schaefer from Marvel. They came up afterwards and asked, “Are any of you guys really interested in doing comics?” and I think I had a whole slew of books from during “Secret Invasion” on me. But of course, I was just reading Marvel because they’re so awful, right, Paul? Down with Marvel, DC forever? [Laughter] I’m just kidding. I’m an equal opportunity fan. But anyway, I told them that I was a big comic fan and would love to try to write for any one-shots or anything that were open.
Cornell: You say you’re not a very good artist. When you say that, are you like a Grant Morrison or an Alan Moore who can draw pretty well but chooses not to? Do you still bring any drawing to your scripts – outlining pages and things like that?
Snyder: I used to, but then I realized how amazing Rafael is, and I just stopped. [Laughter] But for the first couple of issues, I drew sketches of Pearl and Henry and the main characters of “American Vampire.” Then he sent me back his sketches and it took me back to reality where I said, “I’ll never send you another sketch, ever.” So I stopped. My dream is to be able to do some horrible variant cover for myself down the line. Look for it around issue #1,000, loyal readers.
Cornell: I can draw, like, stick men, that’s it. But do you think drawing gives you an added feeling for storytelling panel-to-panel?
Snyder: I hope so. With my literary writing, I still love doing it a lot. But one thing that’s been refreshing about comic book writing – aside from the best part, which is just getting to write characters you love – is that from a technical standpoint, there’s the collaborative aspect -Â just getting to work with somebody. My wife always teases me that, whenever I get a chance to go into the DC offices, I get my empty briefcase and head towards the train like I’m actually going in to work somewhere, finally. [Cornell Laughs] The idea that you’re all alone and writing in a vacuum -Â as much as I like what comes out of it, the process is really grueling. So working with an artist has been a lot of fun. I’m hoping that that makes things better, panel-to-panel. I try to give them a lot of leeway. I love seeing Rafa go crazy on the page and to see Jock go crazy in “Detective.” Every script has this disclaimer on the top which says if they have a better way for doing something – go for it.
Cornell: From what I’ve read of you on the web, you’re fond of short stories – and especially about Carver. Do you think that since Carver is known as the absolute master of brevity -Â he’s right up there with Hemingway in terms of things like, “It was hot. The man sat on the chair” -Â do you think that having that in your head brings an advantage when it comes to comics, where brevity is all?
Snyder: I do think so, yeah. I started writing a novel when I was done with my collection, but I keep gravitating back towards short stories. I just love that form. I love the compression of it – the quick creation of a whole world, like a keyhole glimpse – and having to limit things to 20 pages to 30 pages while still needing to create a full arc. I do think that it lends itself well to comic writing in that way. It’s tough, as I’m sure you know, because on the one hand you’re trying to create an arc that can go ten to 12 issues or six to seven issue, and on the other hand, issue-to-issue each on has to up the ante and have a complete feeling to it. So I’m hoping that the short story training has helped with that. I still feel intimidated each time I write a comic script.
Cornell: Tremendously! It’d be like we were letting down Stan! [Laughter] I find it tremendously culturally intimidating.
Snyder: I know. And every time I write words for Batman’s mouth or something like that, I feel so unworthy. I’ll slave over the editing of it over and over again. But it’s fun getting to know guys like you, and I’ve become close to Jeff Lemire over the past year. Getting to show your stuff to other writers and feel like you have a community is great. That’s one thing as a literary writer I miss a lot. I liked it in graduate school, and I teach workshops like that where I get envious of the kids. They have this support group of each other to read everything. I wish writing were more social. I really do. I would love it if we all lived near the office and could have that writer’s room experience.
Cornell: I do like the social element more than anything else. As a writer, you spend most of your time alone, and as you say, working with an artist and having peers…there’s nothing like it.
Snyder: I love it.
Cornell: With “American Vampire,” you must be tremendously pleased that people are coming to it, but people really have caught on to the notion that this is a baaaaaaaaaaad vampire. Unlike all the modern sparkly, nice, romantic vampires, you’re dealing with a vision of some genuine, ancient badness. Do you think that’s a fair comment?
Snyder: Yeah! And I’m glad that they have. I’m really grateful to everyone who’s reading it, so thanks. If only Stephen King hadn’t been dragging down our sales like an albatross. [Cornell Laughs] But for me, I think what makes monsters enduring is the scariness of it. When you think about it, the big monsters for me are vampires, werewolves and zombies, and they work because they have the potential to take someone you care about or you feel safe with – someone you define yourself by being close to -Â and turn them into something that wants to kill you. To me, that familiarity of turning your neighbor into a monster or your sister or your mother and father is what makes them so enduring. Yeah, they’re exotic and romantic. Any monsters can be made that way, I guess. But that’s not what’s made them last. It’s fun to see a reaction that people have had. They’re getting an inkling that we’re moving in that direction, and the vampires are about to get a lot scarier.
Cornell: What’s it like working with King?
Snyder: It was great! It was funny because the way he got involved is that I sent the series outline to him for a blurb. He had read my literary work for review in 2306, and I’d been in touch with him. Vertigo asked if there was anybody I could get to do some press for the series – just someone from the literary world they could use to create buzz. So I sent it to him, and he wrote back saying he liked the character of Skinner and that he’d be willing to write an issue someday. I told him that if I told Vertigo that, they’d want it right away. And he said, “I don’t know. I’ve never really done a comic. They really won’t want me to do it.”
Cornell: [Laughs] “They really won’t want me to do it.”
Snyder: That’s really what he said! I just said, “If I tell them, they are going to want you.” But he said he wanted to do it, and I think I left Karen [Berger] a message on a Friday afternoon about 5:00-something, and no one was in the office. And then on Monday morning at about 8:30, I got a conference call, and they were like, “Did you say in your message that Stephen King is willing to write an issue of ‘American Vampire?'” [Laughter] That happened really quick. But it was good because the series was already sold – it was greenlit and everything, so I knew at that point they weren’t taking it because of his involvement.
Anyway, he agreed to do it, and so I wrote a really tight outline because it was a really busy time for him, and I figured he wouldn’t want to do that much. Instead, he took the outline and called to ask if he could expand it. He ended up writing five issues! He used the bible that we’d created, and stayed true to the characters, but also took them to really exciting, original places. It was funny, though, because he did mess with us a lot. Like, every once in a while he’d throw something in that was completely ridiculous. He’d be doing a scene that was Skinner killing people, and then at the end it would say, “And then he turns into a bat and flies away!” And I’d call him up and go, “Oh, Stephen, he doesn’t turn into a bat” and he’d go, “No, I was just messing with you…he really turns into mist!” [Laughter] It was like stuff that he’d throw in to see if you were paying attention.
But he was great. His scripts were a lot richer than mine, and he wrote them almost like short stories. I’m hoping to include more of their actual pages in the future either online or in the second trade. I say this a lot, but it’s true – the series is exponentially better for his involvement. We’re all really grateful. And just watching him work – watching someone of his stature, who could probably phone in a story better than I could write on my best day, watching how deeply he gets into a story when he likes it, how hungry he gets with it – like someone writing just out of the gate. It’s inspiring to see. He’s the best.
Cornell: I’m surprised he hasn’t done more in the way of comics before because he’s right on the kind of literary fiction/popular fiction crux. He’s the central figure in that. He’s way concerned with the popular, but he’s really part of the literary canon now.
Snyder: He occupies such an interesting position in that way. The thing I love about his stuff is the same thing that we were saying about vampires. He takes things that are almost totemically American or safe, like the family dog or your car in “Christine” or the small town in “Salem’s Lot,” and turns them into something that’s ferociously murderous against you. To me, it takes a lot of literary skill to make you care about these things enough to make them genuinely frightening when he flips them on their head.
Cornell: But do you feel – having just asked the question in this interview that you must get a lot -Â but do you get pissed off even slightly that your interviews suddenly become about Stephen King?
Snyder: [Laughs] I don’t! I swear, because even when people are like, “Stephen King’s American Vampire,” it doesn’t bother me. Maybe in a few years it will if they keep doing it. But I’m really proud of what he did, and he deserves a lot of credit. I don’t mind at all.
Cornell: To move on to “Detective,” you’re obviously going for a tone that’s different from each of the other Bat books. Do you think there’s something about “DETECTIVE Comics” that asks you for a particular tone?
Snyder: Yeah. Honestly, it was inspiring to see “Knight And Squire” coming out at the same time as this.
Cornell: Oh, go on!
Snyder: No! But also to see what you did with “Action” where you carve out a space that’s entirely your own with your own voice.
Cornell: Though it’s a radically different space than “Detective Comics.”
Snyder: But that’s what I think is great about the Bat universe -Â that each book can be really different and can have its own stamp. I loved what Greg Rucka did with his time on “Detective” and I loved David Hine’s recent story as well, and a lot of what’s been in between, too. My idea was to give the book something that was a little gritty and kind of back to basics with a “C.S.I.” kind of feel as well – with a high-tech kind of gloss on it. I had a big ten to 12-issue story in mind just so that feel was consistent and imprinted on the book the whole time. To say, “If you want this kind of mystery, you can come here for it while if you want Batman fighting his great rogues gallery, you can go to ‘Batman’ for it.” It was that kind of thing. I feel like that’s one of the great potentials of the Batman U. We can all create our own little ecosystems, and the books can be identified in certain ways.
Cornell: Do you miss long runs? I always wanted to be on a comic book for ten years or something. Is that something that’s meaningful to you?
Snyder: Definitely. It’s really meaningful. I’ve been going in and meeting with Mike Marts a lot to ask, “Is there any way we can continue this story? Be honest, can I tease things for later?” That would be my fantasy -Â to be able to write “Detective” or any title in Gotham for years, so you can tell a long-form story. Those are my favorite things of all time – series like that that run for years and have a slow-burn effect. Grant is a master at that.
Cornell: Sideline here that you may not be able to answer: Are the birds meaningful? Are they metaphorical? Are they set dressing? Are the plot?
Snyder: Well, I try to make them all of the above. [Cornell Laughs] I’ll show the bones of it. They’re metaphorical in the way that Gotham is transforming into a Gotham that’s a manifestation of Dick’s strengths and weaknesses and also sort of a nightmare funhouse mirror of his psychology as opposed to Bruce’s. For me, there’s an aspect to it that’s about making it all feel tribal and animalistic and raw in a way that’s changing itself. And the reason there are vultures in the beginning is that the first mystery deals with memorabilia. It turns really dark in the second issue, and for me it’s all about the fact that Dick hasn’t accepted the fact yet that he’s the Batman of Gotham -Â even though he has Bruce’s blessing. It’s a light nod to this idea that Bruce’s villains are on hiatus, at least for this series and run. The vultures are the whole idea of that Batman being dead and now you’re Batman.
So they’re metaphorical in that way, and they’re plot-driven in a way that I wanted something that carries over into the backup. Thematically, we use them in issue two, and then they come back in #874, also. Hopefully it’s not just window dressing for me.
Cornell: Well, it is literally. They’re dressing that window. [Laughter] For me, it’s a bit like Carl Jung, isn’t it? You think of a beetle in a therapy session, and then that particular beetle flies in through the window. It’s like Dick’s attracting the pathetic fallacy in the form of birds to him.
Snyder: Exactly! I feel like the fiction that I write is pretty paranoid, too. The character is usually anxious and struggling with some diorama of the world that’s projected around them with representations of those insecurities or fears so that you’re facing those nightmares in a physical form. That’s what I’m trying to do with “Detective,” now. Hopefully it is a big story about the way that Dick is a very different character than Bruce, psychologically. I want him to be challenged by Gotham, where the mystery will have this effect to show him the ugly face of Gotham’s people – its citizens. There’s a possibility of them being really ugly in some ways. The second arc is about the new face of crime now that the Black Mask is gone and the Falcone’s are diminished. I want this slow transformation of the city into Dick’s worst nightmare that culminates in the end of the run.
Cornell: That’s beautiful. I mean, how many comics these days ever have an unconscious dimension?
Snyder: I mean, reading them, I feel like your’s and Grant’s and all my favorite stuff! [Laughter] I do feel like the bar is so high now. I remember it feeling significantly lower when I was a kid where there were a few great comics and then a slew of comics in the middle. Now it feels so much more porous between the literary world and novels and comics and mysteries. The writing quality is so high across the board that it’s inspiring to look around, but it’s really intimidating too.
Cornell: To get geeky for a moment, what are your favorite comics from back in the day?
Snyder: Well, I grew up alongside Batman. I know it’s silly to list all the Batman stuff, but there’s “The Killing Joke” and “Year One.” And I have an ongoing argument with someone over how I think “The Cult” is really good.
Cornell: Oh yeah! At the time, that Starlin book was sold as the next big Batman book, wasn’t it? It was the one immediately after that run of high-quality Batman books.
Snyder: It was, so I think it got sort of a backlash against it. And I love Bernie Wrightson. But also all the Vertigo things from Alan Moore’s “Swamp Thing” straight down the line were great. Spider-Man too was “Web of” at the time, and there was “Kraven’s Last Hunt.” There were so many good things. For me, the books I go back to over and over again are “Year One” and “Swamp Thing” and “Sandman.” I love “Preacher” to death. There’s a lot.
For me, comics was the excitement of…well as much as I love the literary stuff, I’ll give you an example where as a kid my parents sent me away for the summer. God, that sounds cruel…”sent me away.” But I went to a sleep-away camp for eight weeks that was really sports-oriented.
Cornell: Eight weeks?!?!
Snyder: Yeah, it was a long time, right? Now it seems really long, because I have a son now, and I couldn’t imagine sending him for that long. But I love you mom and dad! [Laughter] But they sent me to camp, and it was like a really competitive sports camp. You can imagine that I hit up arts and crafts most of the time. I remember very vividly getting these packets from my father that were from Forbidden Planet, which is a comic store downtown in Manhattan, every week. And certain stories like “Kraven’s Last Hunt” came to me when I was nine and ten. I was falling over things like “The Cult” or “The Dark Knight Returns” where I still have the original four issues. Getting those and waiting, week-to-week or month-to-month -Â that tease and the longing for it is what’s so powerful and exciting about working in this form.
Cornell: Did you like serious-mode J.M. DeMatteis as opposed to Bwa-ha-ha-mode J.M. DeMatteis?
Snyder: Yeah! [Laughter] I do feel like I skew a little darker in that way, and some of the lighter characters are the ones I fear going near. But I feel like your stories emotionally skew dark but there are lighter elements in them with the humor.
Cornell: It’s the balance you’re always after, isn’t it? The “Knight And Squire” book is about to get incredibly dark towards the end, and I’m very much afraid of writing a straight comedy in comics because the audience don’t like it at all generally. At least today they don’t. “Justice League” was fabulous back in the day on that basis. It kind of is startling where you see reviews of my “Batman And Robin,” which is supposed to be as dark as dishwater, going, “Oh, this is a light-hearted Silver Age adventure.” I don’t think of this as a Silver Age adventure, guys.
Snyder: That shocked me. I’m hoping I can pry some of that series away from Mike in advance. I loved the first issue – the Absence is super cool and creepy.
Cornell: And it gets even more blood-thirsty next issue!
Snyder: That’s what I mean. I guess that part of all this is that when you go for straight comedy but have dark notes in the issue, people think you’re being flip with the characters. But I don’t feel like any of us would be doing that to make fun. With the humorous aspects, I feel like you’re just trying to enjoy being with the characters.
Cornell: I think that Dick is off-handedly a much more happy-go-lucky person than Bruce was. Nightwing and his Robin certainly were lighter. And I think he does, to Damian’s horror, make jokes along the way. But maybe it’s only when Damian’s with him. He can relax like that.
Snyder: I feel like he comes out of his shell and you see the real Dick when he’s around other people as opposed to Bruce, where you see so much of the real him alone. It’s a strange inversion.
Cornell: Let’s have a conversation about Dick. What do you feel about him? What’s the key stuff in him for you?
Snyder: I feel like I love Bruce, and I would love to write Bruce sometime, but I was really excited to write Dick when they said I’d be using him. He’s so relatable. Bruce is interesting because his mission is a personal obsession, and he’s a solitary warrior. No matter what happens, he’ll keep doing it. I feel in a lot of ways that Dick didn’t get into this for vengeance, necessarily, even though his parents were killed. He’s more like a real person in that you could view him as how you would act under the cowl.
Cornell: He got his vengeance, didn’t he? And Bruce never has.
Snyder: And before that, when he was just Robin. With or without that vengeance, he’s more hopeful and more optimistic. On the one hand, that’s exciting to write because you get to have a Batman that can tell jokes and talk to people in social ways and team up. On the other hand, it’s fun because there’s more to lose for him in certain way. That’s what we’re playing with in “Detective.” We’re not trying to crush his spirit. It’s just that the more hopeful he is, the more you can take away in terms of villains. Bruce is more cynical and jaded, even though he’s got a seed of hope deep in there, and belief in the human character.
Cornell: Are you going to be going deeply into his psyche in “Detective?”
Snyder: We really are. I really want it to be something that has to do with the question of why he…I guess what we’re trying to bring , even in the opening of the first issue where Alfred is teasing him for not putting things on the walls of the penthouse, is the idea that he’s never fully committed to Gotham. He was Nightwing in Bludhaven, and even though as Robin he spent most of his life in Gotham, he doesn’t have a personality that extends beyond being Bruce Wayne’s son. He never put down roots there. He always jokes that it’s his circus blood or that he’s kind of a drifter. He gets off on that. But I think deep down, we want to explore the idea of whether he’s also frightened of Gotham because he knows what its capable of. We’re trying to make it pretty deep.
Cornell: That’s lovely. What is it like working with Jock?
Snyder: It’s great. I was so scared, because I was trying to get him on the book. When I heard he might be available and would be at San Diego, I made my whole purpose in San Diego to find Jock and hook up with him. He kept saying, “We’ll talk in San Diego and see if I like the story.” So on the third day of the show, we went out and grabbed a beer. He definitely has a high tolerance, and for me, I felt like he’d go “I’m not going to work on this story. This guy’s a lightweight!”
Cornell: [Laughs] They trained us over here. British comickers are trained in the art of drinking.
Snyder: Well, when I first talked to him, he was like, “I’m on my way to the pub.” And then when we got to San Diego, I was at this bar with him, and I kept saying to myself, “I have to have one more beer. He’s not going to like me and won’t do the book if I can’t keep up!” And I was so wrecked that night and the next day. Jock told me he wanted to do it, and I went to type Mike Marts an e-mail and literally fell asleep with my hands on the keyboard. It was like “I think Jock’s going to do it…………” [Cornell Laughs] But he’s been amazing. He has so much on his plate, and he’s really prioritized this book. I couldn’t be happier with his book. And Francesco has also been amazing. I feel like on this book, I could write a terrible script and it would look so good, it’d cover my traps.
Cornell: Are you going to keep on with the back-up? Are you going to tell a bigger story with Gordon, or is that a short-term thing?
Snyder: Originally, they were going to do the back-ups all the way through, and when they cancelled them, I talked to Francesco because Jock does have a lot on his plate. It’s a lot to do 12 issues, even if they’re 20 pages. So we’d been talking about ways that we could maybe do like three features with Jock and then an issue or two with just Francesco. We’re going to do something like that, so we’ll have one, two and three with Jock, and then #874 and #875 will be all Francesco, doing Batman, and also on the history of James, Jr. and how he became who is is. Then #876 will be Jock again until the ninth issue will be Francesco.
Our thanks again for inspiration from BBC’s Chain Reaction series and to Scott Snyder, Paul Cornell, Jeff Lemire and Nick Spencer for their time and participation!