DC Entertainment held its big Bat-panel at Comic-Con International in San Diego Thursday afternoon, featuring Dark Knight creators past and present including Neal Adams, Jim Lee, Geoff Johns, Frank Miller, Grant Morrison, Denny O’Neil, and Scott Snyder discussing Batman through the years, offering choice anecdotes, salty commentary, and opinions on the definitive version of the Caped Crusader.
“Batman is basically a satanic character,” Morrison began, “but at the same time, he’s on our side. He’s a good guy. And I think the fact he’s a mega-rich good guy appeals to us.”
“I think the reason Batman’s doing so well is because it’s being worked on by some of the most talented people in comic books,” Adams said.
O’Neil said that the popularity of comics “happened while my back was turned,” noting that for much of the time he was working in the medium it was considered “one step above pornography.”
“It’s been an amazing thing to sit back and watch it,” O’Neil said of comics’ mainstream appeal.
Miller said that Batman “has taken on the status of a folk legend,” and is now able to “span generations.” “I remember as a kid seeing Denny and Neal’s Batman, and waking out of the fever dream that was the Adam West show.” Miller went on to praise O’Neil and Adams “for bringing the character back to who he was.” “I never could have done ‘Dark Knight’ without them,” Miller said.
Lee noted that, early on, there were many innovations and additions to the mythology. “There was no style guide, or sense of ‘you have to tell this kind of story,” he said.
“There’s also the fact that Batman is sexy,” Miller said. “He’s the good guy who dresses up like a bad guy and throws bad guys through windows. … His motivations are so simple, that what could have been a normal rich kid turned himself into the pinnacle of a human being.”
Adams noted that, in the beginning when DC “was telling people to draw superheroes” like Superman, creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger “did not take the instruction seriously.” “Batman doesn’t have any superpowers; he just goes and exercises,” Adams said. “Batman is what we would like to be.”
“I’ve written both Batman and Superman,” O’Neil said, “sometimes simultaneously. And I’ll tell you: Superman is a bitch to plot for.” O’Neil joked that Superman is basically “a god,” but Batman “is very easy to get into trouble.”
“The other is the iconography: he looks like a he crawled off a Middle Ages painting of the devil,” O’Neil added. “It’s like looking at what you’re scared of, and realizing it will be ok.”
Snyder chimed in for the first time, joking that his “role on the panel is to not break down and cry” in the presence of the other creators. He noted that Batman turning pain into power “makes no effing sense” but Bruce Wayne “turns this transformative tragedy into achievement.”
“When you’re going through a hard time in your life, you’re looking to Batman as defiance. I’m going to do this crazy thing that I’m not supposed to be able to do,” Snyder said.
“But he also runs around with a young kid in bright tights who is a human target,” Miller joked. “And for a time he also ran around with this big stupid yellow circle on his chest. One of my proudest achievements in comics is getting rid of that goddamn yellow circle.”
Johns noted that Batman is something people share. “If you see someone on the subway reading a Batman comic or with a Batman t-shirt or a Batman tattoo, there’s an instant bond,” he said. “It’s become one of the most recognizable symbols in the world.”
O’Neil said that part of Batman’s appeal over Superman or Spider-Man was the current “gloomy” state of the world. “If he didn’t exist, some canny marketer would have to invent him.”
Speaking of memorable arcs, Snyder said he never saw the Batman TV show as campy, but that “Dark Knight Returns” changed the way he thought about the character. “To see Batman walking the streets of the real world, and taking that world on, was transformative.”
“I first came across Batman on the TV show, and like Scott, I was convinced it was great tragedy — there was no camp at all, it was real danger,” Morrison said. But O’Neil and Adams’ run with the character that made him think more about “the scope of what he’s capable of being.”
“Dark Knight Returns” inspired Lee to get into comics when he was in college, and joked about embarrassing himself to Miller geeking out about memorable scenes. “And I joked we should bring back the yellow oval [in ‘All Star Batman’] and he bitch-slapped me,” he said.
“I first discovered Batman when I was in a department store in Vermont, where I grew up,” Miller said. “I opened up this book, and it was Jerry Robinson’s artwork, that showed gigantic shadows going down building and utter outbreaks of unspeakable violence, and scary villains like the Joker. And I fell in love. But then I lost interest as he became more and more bland, but then Denny and Neal came along, and I saw that this character had not only a legacy but a future.”
Adams spoke of the invisible, unseen “real” Batman, with each creator having his or her own take. “Somehow, we never get it all wrong; somehow, we all get it right,” he said. “We’re circling around him, but in the middle is Batman — and he’s almost real.”
“I don’t think there’s been a wrong Batman; I think there’s a right Batman for the time. The ’50s stuff was not to my taste, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad,” O’Neil said. He added that it was fun and “relatively easy” to write Batman.
“The best way I’ve been able to describe it,” Miller began, “is that Batman is like a very large, multifaceted diamond; you can do almost anything with him.” Also like a diamond, “you can throw it against the walls, you can do anything to it, it will not break.”
A photo of Ben Affleck as Batman from the forthcoming “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” showed on the overhead screens, to applause.
Morrison spoke then about the “Arkham Asylum” series of video games as “being so close to the experience of Batman.” “I think it won’t be long before we’re able to wander through the halls of Arkham Asylum, even if it’s really only our own kitchens and bathrooms.”
At this point the floor was opened to fan questions.
The first question about favorite Batman films.
“For me, I liked the recent Christopher Nolan stuff,” Morrison said. “But as a Batman fan I like all of them. Even those dumb Schumacher ones.”
O’Neill agreed that Nolan’s vision was definitive. Noting that he created some of the characters appearing in the films, O’Neill said, “I was thinking, my God, he really gets this character, he’s doing this better than I did.”
Asked about reenvisioning any of the female supporting characters, Johns talked about his love of Barbara Gordon, mentioning that “I was at one point going to do an ‘All Star Batgirl.” He added that he’s still got the scripts on his computer.
Asked about creators’ favorite of their own story arcs, Miller said, “My favorite of my work? I leave it to you; I can’t pick.”
O’Neill said “I think there are about a dozen I’ll take to my grave with me, but I like them for different reasons. We succeeded in doing an Ellery Queen type mystery, but beyond that I don’t think it’s a good idea to look at the past.”
Snyder, more directly, chose “Zero Year,” which carries “the spirit of ‘Year One” and has many of the hallmarks of Batman stories he’s loved from other creators. “‘Zero Year’ was us being brave about making Batman’s origin personal and modern,” he added. He joked that Miller praised the “Zero Year” team for “giving [Bruce] a good goddamn haircut.”
A fan asked about anecdotes of Bob Kane or Bill Finger. “We talked in another panel about Bill Finger; Bill was a good man, he was a kind man, and he was one of the first to understand how to write for comics: it is not a strip, it is a canvas,” O’Neill said. “As to Bob… it’s a beautiful day in San Diego!”
“He was quite bewildered by ‘Dark Knight,'” Miller said of Kane. “And he mainly asked me, why does that woman have swastikas on her butt?”
“Someday somebody’s going to write a ‘Kavalier and Clay’-type novel about Bill Finger; it’s a great American tragedy,” O’Neill said. “I’ve come to understand how it happened, and it was not malice on anybody’s part, it was the time he was living in,” he said of the copyright disputes.
Morrison praised Finger for coming up with the phrase “Master Fiend” to describe the Joker. “It’s the greatest phrase in the world,” he said.
Asked about a definitive Batman, Miller said, “I think the best way to experience Batman is in comic books.”
“To me, Batman is all the versions of Batman,” Morrison said. “Like a person, sometimes they’re happy, sometimes they’re sad … like a real person, you have to see them from all these different angles.”
“The very best Batman,” Miller added, “is the one you like the best.”