SPOILER WARNING: This article contains spoilers for “Batman Incorporated: Leviathan Strikes!” on sale now.
Last week, the extra-sized DC Comics special “Leviathan Strikes!” hit comic shops, wrapping up the latest and penultimate arc of writer Grant Morrison’s ongoing Batman super story. But with the last page reveal that master criminal Leviathan is actually longtime love interest Talia al Ghul, the story of “Batman Incorporated” isn’t finished yet.
This week, CBR’s ongoing discussion of Batman and his world -Â THE BAT SIGNAL -Â shines its light on artist Chris Burnham who has been instrumental in this latest phase of Morrison’s years long exploration of the Dark Knight. Originally coming to DC to draw some of the final pages of the writer’s “Batman & Robin” story after years working on acclaimed titles like “Officer Downe” and “Nixon’s Pals” at Image, Burnham has become the chief “Batman Incorporated” artist after drawing key issues in the books current run as well as the final chapter of “Leviathan Strikes!” When “Batman Incorporated” returns with a new #1 in 2012, the artist will serve as the series regular penciler.
Below, Burnham discusses the style and substance of his work on “Batman Incorporated,” explaining how he and Morrison work together to deliver the ultra-detailed clues that have driven the story, sharing what changes he made to make each superspy sequence in “Leviathan Strikes!” pop off the page and spilling some early teases as to the next phase in Morrison’s story including how it connects with classic R’as al Ghul tales.
CBR News: Chris, “Leviathan Strikes!” hit last week making a lot of Batman fans happy, although I was a bit sad it didn’t come with a cover featuring a school girl getting clocked in the face by the Dark Knight.
Chris Burnham: Yeah. What are you gonna do? [Laughter] Apparently one of the mucky mucks put the thumbs down on that.
You’ll be continuing on with the next iteration of “Batman Incorporated.” Are you well into that series now? Are these “Leviathan” pages something you haven’t touched in a while?
It has not been that long. It’s only been four weeks maybe since I finished the last one. Take that as you will.
Let’s look over the whole run that you’ve had with Grant Morrison. You got teamed with him right from the start of your coming to DC. What was that like? Was there performance anxiety at all being told you were going to draw pages of the company’s top writer’s mega-opus?
Oh man. Performance anxiety is putting it lightly. I freaked out. [Laughter] To have never done a DC project before and then have them go, “Oh, you get to finish off the Black Glove storyline that’s been going on for the past four years!” – I totally psyched myself out. I got super nervous, and in my first two days on the project I reread all of Grant’s run and looked at every picture of the Batcave I could find and was just trying to distract myself from the fact that I had to/got to work with my favorite writer by throwing myself into art reference. Then I ended up backing myself into a deadline corner and thought, “Now I’ve got to start drawing this damn thing!” It was really nerve-wracking.
Grant has spoken about the whole genesis for his Batman run being his reading of old stories and kind of absorbing all the weirdest parts of 80-some years of Batman history. Your issues seem to have used a lot of that influence both in referencing all sorts of small details from Batman comics past but also from Grant’s run to date including a street girl Batman had referred to Wayne Enterprises for a job showing up as a receptionist. How much of that stuff came naturally as part of your very detailed style? Were you a big Batman reader who had a deep reference for weird ’50s stuff?
I had never read the ’50s stuff before. I’m a huge Grant fan, and I already had all the issues of his run, and I think by the time I started the book I already had that “Black Case Book” collection with all the super crazy reprints. But as far as the Silver Age Batwoman, I’m not even sure I knew she existed when I had to draw that story. I acquired a bunch of stuff for that. DC sent me most of the reference as Jpegs, and I may have downloaded one or two to get everything down. But most of it was a matter of me going on the internet and going, “Hey! What does this mean?” David Uzumeri and Chris Sims at ComicsAlliance are kind of my Batman coaches. [Laughs]
There’s that mirror room in “Batman Incorporated” #4, and in the script Grant said, “I read about this somewhere, but I can’t remember where I read it so get on the internet and find it.” [Laughs] And I couldn’t find any reference to it, but Sims and Uzumeri found it and sent me Jpegs of it. That was pretty neat. I think the Jpegs came along too late for me to use as reference, so I made most of it up, but it was neat to have all that.
I just re-read you and Joe Casey’s “Officer Downe” which is out in a new deluxe hardcover from Image, and in that Joe notes in his intro how loose the two of you worked together there. He left a lot of room for you to dictate how certain elements of the story rolled out. Since Grant is both an artist himself in a lot of the aspects of these books as well as someone with a lot of specific details in play, has the process of working on “Batman Incorporated” been a different kind of collaboration?
Honestly, not really. Grant’s scripts leave a lot of room for interpretation for the artist. He hasn’t sent me any sketches or designs yet, though occasionally the script will go pretty overboard for the descriptions. In the first page of script, he’ll get really into the style and design of the issue – “here’s what we’re going for” -Â and then whenever a new character is introduced or a new setting is introduced he’ll describe it in pretty specific detail. But once the action starts, he’s pretty open with it, and he’s very open to the artist adding panels, deleting panels and moving an action from one page to another. He’s not drawing the thing, and he knows the artist spends a lot more time on the page than he does, so he feels the artist should be free to throw their weight around.
With your chapter of “Leviathan Strikes!” there was a lot of variation scene-by-scene. It seemed like a great playground for you to do what you like and shift styles. Some of the pages, like the Oracle page that takes place in the previously all-digital world of cyberspace, came with a style in mind while other things seem all you. I noticed that in the final sequence with Daedalus, the floor pattern looks an awful lot like the the “Batman Inc” logo.
Oh! I didn’t even realize that, but yeah! [Laughter] That’s really funny.
But overall, this very much felt like you visually unified the whole “Batman Incorporated” series. Was that your goal, or was this more a challenge of making each scene work on its own?
I think it was more trying to have each scene have its own vibe. The whole issue has that weird circular structure where Batman goes into the same room over and over – or really four different rooms. But I wanted to have each time that he stepped in there have a bit of a different feel to make it easier on the reader and to give myself something interesting to draw. Overall, the visual theme or vibe for the issue was that we were going for a Steranko Nick Fury sort of feel. That’s where all the op art and style effects come from. It was Batman as superspy, and there’s a “Prisoner” riff with the ball chair and then all the Steranko design stuff.
And when it cuts to all the different Batman Incorporated teams, I’m not even sure I do this consciously, but whatever the scene is my style ends up shifting to better capture what happens in the scene. If you’re on a cold, sterile satellite, I’m going to use some clean, cold linework. If it’s the haunted house version of the Levithan maze, then the linework got a lot scratchier and grittier. You can’t draw a clean haunted house or a sketchy satellite, so whatever the scene calls for my style shifts to.
Did you draw the pages linear, or did you switch what you were working on depending on what style was called for?
I did have to draw it a little all over the place. [Laughs] It was a very difficult script to work from because it was 30 pages long and had about 12 different scenes in there. So I broke the script down scene-by-scene and had this funny map to remind myself of what was what. I tried to draw all the Leviathan brainwashing scenes at once to keep the look of the room consistent. I drew it out of order in that sense -Â drawing all the scenes from one location at one time, which I guess is how they shoot movies. But I also jumped around a little bit within that. There was a week in the middle of production where we weren’t sure if this was going to be a pre-New 52 or post-New 52 story, and during that week I went out of my way to not draw any costumes that I knew would be changed. [Laughter] So that week I drew all the Batwing pages and anything that could help avoid the question of whether or not I was drawing the correct Batman uniform.
They haven’t solicited the first issue of “Batman Inc’s” return yet…
That will be coming soon! I know the answer, but I don’t think I’m allowed to say. It’s not as soon as people want, but we’re working hard on it, and it’s coming.
But the #1 question I’ve seen from people online when the New 52 came out was “What does this do to Grant’s Batman story?” since it is built so much on what’s come before. What can you say about the impact, if any, that the relaunch has had on his plans and your work?
Well, for the second volume of “Incorporated” there are little changes like Catwoman not knowing who Batman is anymore or Batgirl being able to walk or Commissioner Gordon having red hair now. But all that stuff doesn’t really matter in terms of the “Batman Vs. Leviathan” storyline. I’ve read the story notes and the first couple of scripts, and it’s a brand new Batman adventure with new villains and new characters. And the stuff that’s coming back from the first volume is the core Batman members versus the forces of Leviathan. I think it’s hopefully going to dodge the question of the weird continuity problems. Hopefully we’ll be able to dodge that entirely. [Laugher] So when Grant’s full Batman run is completely done, you’ll be able to read it all from start to finish and the “Flashpoint” thing won’t even register. That’s my hope.
The last thing I’d ask is about Leviathan herself -Â AKA Talia. Your issue notes that this has been rolling since the first issue of Grant’s run with the ninja Man-Bats. As a reader who had been following this along, how did you respond to that, and then as someone brought into the process of working on the story, how did your view of it change?
As a reader and a Batman fan and a Grant fan, I thought it was awesome. Since reading the script, I’ve gone back and picked up pretty much every Ra’s al Ghul and Talia story. And some of them are terrible, and some of them are awesome. But what became totally clear to me is that the Denny O’Neil/Neal Adams stuff that launched the very first Ra’s stories…well, “Batman Inc” is almost a direct sequel to that stuff. So if you go back and read that, it’s puts things in a really interesting light. I don’t know if I channeled any Neal Adams stuff in my first run, but he’s really been in my mind moving forward. I’m super psyched to be continuing this 40-year-long meta story or whatever you’d call it.
Stay tuned in the new year for more from “Batman Incorporated” and the entire Batman line here on THE BAT SIGNAL!