The ’80s and ’90s were seminal decades for Batman. It was a time when he wore his all-time pointiest-eared costume, had his back broken by a luchador mask-wearing villain and right in the middle of it all, Tim Burton ushered in another wave of Bat-mania with his 1989 movie.
To celebrate the Dark Knight’s 75th Anniversary at Comic-Con International in San Diego, a spotlight panel focusing on the Bat-lore of those two decades was held, featuring some instrumental voices that shaped the era’s monthly Batman tales. Longtime Bat-editor Denny O’Neil moderated the panel, which featured writer Chuck Dixon and artists Graham Nolan and Kelley Jones.
Before the panel began, Dixon, Nolan and Jones were presented with Inkpot Awards for their contributions to the character — O’Neil had been awarded an Inkpot in 1981.
O’Neil started the panel off giving a glimpse of how he ran the Bat-office, also adding how much he enjoyed working on the books. “For the last ten years or so, I should have been paying them. It was a pleasure to get on the subway and go to work,” said O’Neil. He recalled taking over the Bat-books, the first thing he did was what Paul Levitz had done before him and created a “Bat-bible” to use as a blueprint and set the boundaries of what could be done with the character. (“No time travel, no campiness,” he would later reveal as two of the parameters.)
To illustrate how well the Bat-office worked together, O’Neil made a point to note the political differences between he and Dixon. “Standing before you are two political extremes… Guess which one is the sissy liberal,” he said of himself to laughter. “And I don’t remember a single incident where that was ever an issue.”
“We had discussions outside of work, but that was never an issue,” agreed Dixon, adding that even when they did have disagreements, they were always able to find a common ground that worked for the story. O’Neil stressed it was important to him, since he was given the freedom to explore social issues in the “Green Lantern/Green Arrow” stories of the ’70s, that he give the same privilege to his writers, citing a gun story he let Dixon, an NRA member, tell.
O’Neil asked the panelists if they wanted to talk about what it was like working under him on the book. Jones went first and said it was great. “You let me draw really long ears,” said Jones of his iconic take on the character. “I just remember it being probably the best period of my career was in that office. I mean everybody was great. Everybody knew what they were doing… I loved that. And I miss it. And I love the fact that you guys ran your own ship.”
Nolan added, “They gave you the freedom to create without smothering you.”
Dixon talked about his career and how he was plucked from the backbench to write “Robin.” Saying he kept getting more and more work because of his reliability, he told of a Batman story he thought might have gone too far.
“I knew Denny’s very definite opinions on Batman and I wanted to have scene where Batman was staking someone out and he falls asleep.” But Dixon called up O’Neil to run it by him and was given the go-ahead.
“I don’t remember a time, except for when we brought Mr. Freeze back to life, that you told me you were displeased,” Dixonrecalled, explaining O’Neil had him off kill Mr. Freeze. Then, when they were stuck for a villain in a fill-in issue he only had a few days to write, he came up with an idea where we find out Mr. Freeze had not actually died.
“He just got a real bad cold,” O’Neil declared to laughter.
Nolan and Dixon also reminisced about their story starring Captain Fear, a pirate-themed villain, which they called their “high watermark” Bat-story, despite other editors hating the comic.
O’Neil talked about the Bat-summit where he realized Dixon was going to be a good fit for the team. Dixon revealed he almost didn’t attend, because he avoided social engagements with comics industry types, explaining, “I’m going to say something stupid, or rub someone the wrong way and that’ll be the end of me.”
When the panel was turned over to fan questions, the first person asked two: First, he asked Dixon how he feels about being seen as an “underrated writer.” Dixon said he was primarily concerned with gaining the respect of his peers over that of the readers and fans, and the way he approaches writing is with “the invisible hand.”
“It’s a large part of why, as you say, I’m underrated… because if I’ve succeeded, you’re not aware someone wrote the story,” Dixon answered. “And what I hear from a lot of people is that, ‘y’know. I was going through my comic book collection and 75 percent of my comics were written by you. I never realized that.’ And that’s fine with me. I’ll be the invisible hand.”
The next question concerned the creation of Bane, with Dixon saying he pitched the importance of the villain being memorable right out of the gates for the “Knightfall” storyline. He had to be an equal, intellectually, to Batman, and also be on venom. Nolan talked about creating the look, coming up with the luchador mask, as well as “the Cuban revolutionary look, with the pants and boots.”
The next question asked the panel for thoughts on the first Tim Burton “Batman” movie. O’Neil admitted it “changed the game,” in that a film had never approach the superhero genre with the same kind of respect and seriousness, but also said he didn’t agree with every creative decision. “He shows up in a Batplane. Where does the Batplane come from? It comes from the Acme Corporation,” O’Neil said, comparing the film’s logic to a cartoon.
“They’ve never made a Batman movie,” said Nolan, explaining his problem with Burton movie, as well as the recent trilogy. “The Christopher Nolan movies, it’s James Bond movies. If you substitute Batman for James Bond and Q for Morgan Freeman’s character, it’s the same story. We never see Batman as the world’s greatest detective. He always solves everything with technology, and it’s not even technology he created. It’s given to him by some other guy. And that’s the biggest beef I have with these Batman movies.”
“For my money, the best Batman and Robin movie ever made is ‘Die Hard 3,'” Dixon declared. “You have Batman, Robin and The Riddler. It was much better than the crappy Riddler they made in the movie the same year.”
The next fan asked about how the editorial challenges of planning the big Bat Events worked, namely for “Knightfall,” “Knightquest” and “KnightsEnd.” O’Neil said they hashed out most of it at their summits, but the challenge was to make sure the writers didn’t feel hamstrung working on something they came up with eight months before.
The last fan question asked about Jim Aparo, the legendary Batman artist of the ’80s and ’90s. “He was the consummate writer’s artist. No matter what kind of absurd nonsense you threw at him to draw, he would figure out a way to do it,” O’Neil responded.
Nolan told of a story when Aparo was set to receive an award at Comic-Con, but opted out. “He was such a regular guy and he didn’t like accolades. He came to the bar that night with Chuck and I, hanging out and drinking beer, and he missed the entire ceremony. Archie Goodwin came to the bar and presented it to him there… He said, ‘Oh, thanks!’ He was so great.”
Dixon recalled being on a panel with Aparo in the ’90s, the last time they were all on a panel together. “Somebody stood up… and said, I don’t have a question, I just want to thank Mr. Aparo. He got a three-minute standing ovation and teared up.”