For the past six years, Dustin Nguyen has resided quite comfortably in DC Comics’ Gotham City, and if his continued work on “Streets of Gotham” and upcoming run on “Batgirl” are any indication, he doesn’t plan on leaving any time soon.
The artist, a longtime fan of the Dark Knight and his infamous city of residence, first broke out his unique style inside the Gotham playground alongside writer Judd Winick with a four-issue arc on the “Batman” ongoing series. Following that, he came on board as the regular artist on Paul Dini’s “Detective Comics” run and continued his partnership with the writer on the “Streets Of Gotham” title spawned after the apparent death of Bruce Wayne. With his use of shadows and unique style and color palette, Nguyen brought a distinctive look to Gotham City and its denizens, both superhero and other. The artist gained a loyal following through both the comic community and his DeviantArt page, which often features sets of miniaturized, child-like versions of various superheroes.
With so much love of all things Batman, it wasn’t hard to convince Nguyen to answer the call of CBR’s ongoing column THE BAT SIGNAL in order to take a look at his past, present and future in Gotham City.
CBR News: Dustin, you’ve actually been spending most of your time in the Bat-Universe for quite some time now. You’ve worked on “Streets of Gotham,” you worked with Judd Winick on a few “Batman” stories, you worked on “Detective Comics.” What’s it been like working in the Batman world and what is it about this section of the DCU that appeals to you as an artist, keeping you here for so long?
Dustin Nguyen: Mostly, I really like Batman and I really like Gotham City. If anyone has seen my stuff, it’s not just about Batman. It’s about Gotham City, in general. I think I like the superhero aspect of it and I like the good and bad, but something about Gotham makes it stand in a time of its own. Everything feels like it’s from a certain era. The style of it is a little darker – it’s mainstream, but it’s not too unrealistic. It feels like crime really does happen there.
I wanted to hit on two things you just mentioned. As an artist, there’s a lot of dynamic to drawing Batman, between his cape and playing with the shadows. What about the character most appeals to you when drawing him?
A lot of people say that you have to draw Batman this way and that way, but I think it’s all about atmosphere. Whatever your style is, you can pull of Batman anyway you want as long as the atmosphere comes off. And when I say atmosphere, I don’t mean the feeling that Batman is in the air. He doesn’t even have to be there. Sometimes you get to draw this really cool shot of Gotham City, and you know that’s Batman’s city. I think the cape is the element that ties the character to the city. It’s kind of hard, because whenever I draw Batman by himself, it becomes very difficult because I’m trying to describe this whole atmosphere that isn’t there if it’s just him. If I draw him inside the city, I can use the cape to tie in certain elements, like what the temperature is like, which way the wind is blowing, the lighting of the city. I think all of the elements come together to make it fun. I’m not really particular about certain characters. I wouldn’t care if it was Superman standing in Gotham City -Â I would try and blend the two and it wouldn’t be so much about drawing Superman as drawing Superman inside Gotham City.
That leads right into the second point I wanted to discuss, and that’s the idea of Gotham City. You said that you love the city itself, and if you compare it to Metropolis or Star City and Coast City, those places have their key elements, but Gotham is the one that is most well defined – everyone knows Gotham. Is that part of the appeal to drawing the city – the gritty realism and the definitive nature of the place?
Yeah. The gritty realism. And also, the original Tim Burton Gotham City was just rad. You look at it and you can just tell that it was a designed city, made to fit in its own timeframe and it would never move from it. It seems like nothing ever changes in Gotham, for some reason. [Laughs] Comics, the way it is, you can pull that off for years. I mean, Batman should be dead or pretty old, but with comics, you can hold a certain point in time and play with it as long as you want. Gotham is one of those cities.
If you look at Metropolis, it’s a very bright city. You never really see or think of Metropolis at night. It’s always day. But with Gotham, it’s the exact opposite. It’s always night. What are your thoughts on that contrast?
I like that contrast a lot. A lot of times, I do like drawing Metropolis because it lets me put away the brush and dirty work and focus on the clean and technology. The thing about Metropolis is, when you look at a city like Gotham, it’s really dark and gritty, so you don’t really think about it moving forward. You always think that, “Oh man. It can get worse and the city can go to hell at any moment.” With Metropolis, the style has to change, because it has to move with real-life technology. We moved from big screen to flat screen to holograms. So, you take those elements from real life, and when you’re drawing Metropolis you’re like, “Okay. I have to take it up a notch again. I’ve got to find latest in technology.” Are trains moving on rails or are they hovering? Every time you draw Metropolis, you’ve got to keep one upping yourself and other artists, too. With Gotham, you’re like, “This is cool. Let’s just focus on what I like.” So, that’s the big difference between the two when you’re drawing.
Was that part of the appeal of “Streets of Gotham?” It literally is the streets of Gotham that you’re drawing and what you’re doing in that book.
[Laughs] Yeah. The biggest appeal was just focusing on Gotham in general. Originally they were like, “Do you want to do a Batman book, do you want to do a specific character?” I wanted to do something where I could focus on Gotham itself and the dirty, gritty business that goes on within it. It doesn’t necessarily always have to have Batman. Like, one of my favorite issues is where we focused on the Broker. You always see these hideouts and you think, “Where do these guys always get these hideouts from? Who is their real estate agent?” And Paul Dini actually pulled it off. This guy goes around and he sells hideouts. I thought that was great and explained a lot about the city.
Paul’s discussed the “House of Hush” story, which is a sequel to the “Heart of Hush” story you guys did in “Detective Comics.” Are you still on
Oh yeah, definitely. I just did the character designs for a new character we’re introducing.
Is this a book that you pretty much want to continue on for as long as possible?
Yeah. As long as they have that book, that’s a book I want to be on. I started out with issue #1 and I told them I want to be the guy that starts and ends it. I’ve tried really hard and done my own backup stories, even. It’s really tough, but I told DC that’s the book I wanted to start and that I wanted to end. So, as long as they’re going to have that book, I want to be on it.
In regards to “House of Hush,” there’s a lot of things going on there with Thomas Elliot and now the return of Bruce Wayne. What’s it like working on this sequel with Paul, and how large a role is Catwoman going to play after what she and Elliot went through in “Heart?”
I just read the script, and she actually jumps right into the story. I don’t think Dini would make her not a big part. He loves Catwoman, and in his storyline – from what we’ve seen -Â she’s always going to be the girl for Batman. I mean, I don’t want to speak for Paul, but that’s the way it comes off to me and I can’t see her not playing a big role. But yeah, what’s it like? I loved “Heart of Hush,” and in this one, we’re [taking things a step] further. You can tell from some of the cover solicitations, we’re tying in not just the current Batmen, Bruce and Dick, but we’re going even deeper. The last storyline, we dug back into Bruce and Tommy. This time, Paul is going past them, back to the adventures of Thomas Wayne and Martha Wayne. It’s very awesome. That sounds weird because it’s our book, so I have to say that, but it is very awesome. When I saw the outline, I was like, “This story is going to kick ass.”
To clarify, this takes place once Bruce has returned to the present day, so he plays a role in this story as well.
Yeah. We’re following with continuity, so there are two Batmen and our story ties right into that. We’re doing a lot of flashbacks like we did in “Heart of Hush,” so you get stories from Bruce’s family and the ties they have with Thomas Elliot’s family.
I wanted to shift over to “Batgirl,” where writer Bryan Q. Miller managed to take a character people were a little hesitant about accepting and make her very likable and perfect for the role of Batgirl. What’s it like coming onto this book and working on the adventures of Stephanie Brown?
It’s definitely different. We talked about how gritty Gotham was and everything, but the tone of [“Batgirl”], Bryan likes to keep it fun. A lot of people think, “Oh man. It’s Dustin. He’s going to make everything gritty and have blood everywhere.” But it’s not. It’s something for me to shift gears for. It’s very fun and it’s witty, too. That’s the big shift for me -Â jumping between the two different styles and making sure I don’t overstep what the previous artist did. He did a great job.
What’s it like drawing this Batgirl in comparison to other members of the Bat-Family?
Well, this Batgirl in particular seems more teenaged than any of the previous Batgirls. You had Cassandra Cain, who was a teenager, but she was kind of disturbed. She’s a little darker. She wouldn’t be smiling. Barbara Gordon was hands down my favorite Batgirl ever, and I think most people [feel the same]. But if I were drawing her, I’d go for a little more classic look. With Stephanie, you have to focus on the fun part of her and her being a real teenager. She goes to college and has friends she has to deal with and study groups. She can’t just shift out of that into being Batgirl, sometimes. Crime fighting is her full-time job, but she’s also a kid. So, those are things I need to focus on when drawing her in particular.
In a previous interview on CBR, Bryan mentioned that in Year Two, we’re going to be seeing more characters from outside of the Bat-Family from the greater DCU. Coming onto the book, this gives you a chance to move outside of the Bat-Universe, as well. Are you looking forward to stretching your wings, as it were?
Oh yeah. It’s exciting. It’s like having guests over to your house once in a while. You get to get ready for it and you’re like, “Yeah. They’re coming over. We get to impress them.” You got to see what people like already. A lot of the characters are already established, and I try to see what the people before me have done and what the fans like. They’re not really my characters. But I’m definitely excited for the issues where we have guest stars. It’s like, “Oh cool. This comes with the package, too?”
There are two last things I wanted to talk to you about. The first is your inker, Derek Fridolfs, who I understand is a buddy of yours. What’s your relationship like? I know you guys met some time ago and have been working together in the field for quite a while now.
Yeah. That guy is awesome. [Laughs] I like to think we have a great relationship because he’s one of those people where we really see eye to eye. When we do a book together, it’s pretty much a true collaboration where I go in and I draw and ink pieces of it and then he’ll go in and whatever I’m not good at, he’ll draw and ink. We’ve collaborated on a few stories here and there. He lives a few hours from me, but every night I’ll get online and he’ll be there and we’ll talk about what we’re going to write about and what we’re going to draw. It’s like how a writer puts out a game plan, Derek and I, we have the same thing. When we jump on a book, I’m like, “Okay. This is what we’re going to go for. Whenever I do this do that. Or, if you do this, I’ll do that.” It’s a big game plan for us every time we jump on a book together. It’s really great. Pretty soon he’s going to be writing more and we won’t work together on art as much, but hopefully we will for as long as we can.
Will there be a chance of him writing something and you drawing it? Or, for a crazy twist, you write something and he’ll draw it?
We’ve had a talk about it before. What we’re planning to do one day is that we’ll both writing something and then I’ll draw, he’ll ink it and I can color it. We’ve been trying to get the Lil’ Gotham characters their own story. So, that’s something he plays a big role in.
You just hit the last thing I wanted to talk about. For those who have seen your stuff at conventions or on DeviantArt, they know your Lil’ Gotham stuff already. What are the chances of readers and fans seeing a limited series or a one-shot done in that style?
We actually have something written up already. We already banged out most of the stuff we want to do with it, but the hardest part is just finding a place within the DCU. The way we write it, it’s fun, it’s very kiddy, but I don’t think it’ll go into the children section. Or maybe it might. I don’t know. But yeah, we’re trying to look for a place for it, so you should make a big ruckus about it until they bring it out. [Laughs]
Dustin Nguyen’s work on “Batman Streets of Gotham” picks up with the upcoming issue #16, and he takes over art chores on DC’s “Batgirl” with November’s issue #15.