Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s “Death of the Family” crossover event has inarguably led DC Comics’ Bat-family titles to critical and commercial success. But while the Joker’s pathological presence has cast a shadow across Gotham City, writer John Layman (“Chew”) and rising star artist Jason Fabok (“The Dark Knight”) have delivered an epic story all their own — sans the Clown Prince of Crime — in “Detective Comics,” where a pair of penguins have ruled the roost.
When Oswald Cobblepot is summoned to Arkham Asylum by The Joker, he leaves his No. 2, Ignatius Ogivly, in charge. But with the Penguin away, Emperor Penguin rises as the once-loyal foot soldier turns underworld crimelord quickly puts his own villainous master plan in action.
The story continued in this week’s “Detective Comics” #17, but deciding one new rogue isn’t enough to keep Batman busy, Layman and Fabok introduced another supervillain to the Dark Knight’s mythos: the Merrymaker.
Leading the League of Smiles, a criminal group of psychotic killers that worship The Joker, Layman told CBR News that Merrymaker was inspired by a series of images he found on Google. He couldn’t believe the design hadn’t been used before for a villain and Fabok is happy that it hadn’t because he’s having a blast drawing Batman’s latest adversary.
Layman and Fabok spoke with CBR’s THE BAT SIGNAL about working alongside a crossover, rethinking classic rogues for the New 52 and headlining the upcoming “Detective Comics” #19, a special oversized issue celebrating the 900th issue of the series.
CBR News: When we last spoke, you were just gearing up to write “Detective Comics.” Now that you’ve been writing Batman for six months, what do you think? Is it everything you expected?
John Layman: I think I’m a little less nervous now. I didn’t quite have my sea legs at first. But now that I know what I’m doing and I sort of have a handle on the book, there’s not as much trepidation as I felt at first.
Did you have any problems finding Batman’s voice?
Layman: I don’t think I had trouble finding his voice per se. The weird thing is that Batman has been around for so long that you could argue that there are a few incarnations of his voice.
I think the bigger challenge was finding an appropriate tone for the book that would stand out as different from the other books. You want “Detective” to be its own thing rather than a rehash of “Batman” or “Dark Knight” or any of the others. I really tried to make it stand out as its own distinct Batman.
â€¨First of all, we’re trying to make it into almost a procedural. It’s called “Detective,” so every issue has been a case. The other thing is that I am real firm believer, especially now that I don’t have to worry about rent because of “Chew,” that you make comics you want to read. I want every issue to be satisfying and not to have people saying, “Oh. He’s just writing for the trade.”
It’s called “Detective” but I’m treating it like “Batman: Law & Order.” It’s a case every issue but it’s also serialized with a bigger story to tell.
Jason, you’re the new kid on the block but I assume you knew who Batman was growing up in Canada?
Jason Fabok: [Laughs] Yeah, of course. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a Batman fan. Between Batman and Superman, those were the two main characters that I grew up on. I remember watching the old Adam West show. That was probably my first exposure to Batman because they would play reruns after school sometimes. And I then when I was five or six years old I saw Tim Burton’s “Batman” and I remember being shocked because my vision of Batman as a kid was this goofy, cartoony kind of thing and then I see the Tim Burton films and it was so dark and serious.
I also grew up watching “Batman: The Animated Series” after school every day and always, even as a little child, I used to draw Batman all of the time — in my school binders and everywhere else — so my whole life has been Batman focused and that’s why for me it’s a real, surreal kind of thing going on. Here I am, working in the comics industry, which was my dream just to get into the comics industry with all the competitiveness that is out there, but now to work on my all-time favorite character, to me, it’s just all come together so perfectly. All of my dreams have just merged and come together.
I’m working with John on “Detective Comics” of all things, which is a legendary comic book. I’m just very thankful and, like I said, it’s all very surreal for me.
Layman: Not only a legendary comic but we’re going to be, in the musical chairs of this book, on the 900th issue. We are on a landmark issue coming up.
I wanted to ask you about that and we’ll circle back to it, for sure. But first, Jason, I love your take on Batman. Is there something you specifically wanted to do with the character to make him your own?
Fabok: My first exposure to Batman, as a teenager, in the comics was Jim Lee’s “Hush.” Jim Lee has always been a huge inspiration for me, artistically. He was the first artist I really followed so to me, looking back, Jim Lee’s version of Batman was always the one that I always said, “If I ever get to draw Batman, I want it to be dark and shadowy like that with the city streets and the smoke coming off the streets and the buildings.”
Jim Lee is really the guy that I’ve always associated with Batman. But then as I’ve grown artistically, I’ve brought all of these different influences to my art like Tim Sale. I really wanted to draw a really dark and shadowy Batman — a film noir kind of Batman. Everything is shadows and just lots of blacks and whites.
I feel like I’m still trying to figure out how to draw Batman. I find that he’s a tough character to draw because I want it to look perfect every single time. He’s a very, very tough character to draw and I’m just trying my best to capture all of those visuals that I saw as a child from Tim Burton to the new “Dark Knight” movies and find some sort of art style.
Mission accomplished. John, the Joker is a character synonymous with Batman and Scott [Snyder] is telling a big story with him right now over in “Batman,” which ties into your series as well as many of the other Batbooks. And yet, you’ve chosen to feature the Penguin. Is he a villain that you place right beside the Joker in Batman’s rogues’ gallery?
Layman: I don’t necessarily think that I have made Penguin the villain. He is a villain, but like I said, I am trying to do this very accessible thing where every issue is its own thing. And while he may be the overarching villain, as a device, I was also able to use Ivy in an issue and Clayface and these last two issues, new characters. And the next issue focuses on Penguin’s assistant, Ogilvy. And “Detective Comics” #19 is going to focus on two other villains that aren’t Penguin, so despite being called “Emperor Penguin” and ostensibly being about Penguin, as we sort of map out the architecture of the series, Penguin is really only the star of two issues.
That said, I think Penguin is up there but I don’t think that he’s on the same level as Joker. I put him on a lower tier of Batman villains, but maybe just one removed. I think Joker is the absolute top and then one below that you get Penguin, Riddler, Catwoman and maybe Killer Croc. And below that you get Mister Freeze, Man-Bat and Bane. But that’s all debatable on who you like.
Jason mentioned the old Adam West series, and whenever I think of Penguin, I think of Burgess Meredith.
Layman: That’s true for me too.
That was a very comical take but he’s actually pretty badass, especially in your story. But Emperor Penguin, AKA. Ignatius Ogilvy, takes it to another level.
Layman: One of the things that always struck a false chord with me is that you have all of these dumb henchmen and invariably, they get their asses kicked by Batman. I wanted to make one that was two-dimensional, one not to just get punched. You assume maybe most of them are just dumb henchmen but once and a while you’re going to get one that wants to rise to the top, or at least try, just one that’s a little smarter than the others and tries to make a difference, benevolently.
Jason, Ogilvy is not your typical Batman rogue with a disfigured face that hides out in the shadows. He’s tall and handsome and could be right from corporate America. Did you model him after anybody?
Fabok: When I was given the description of the character, John mentioned that he wanted his hair look like a certain type of penguin — I don’t know if it’s actually called an Emperor penguin but it has this big, yellow Mohawk/frill thing on its head. And that was the first visual cue for the character. And then for some reason, I thought of Sting — the guy from The Police — in “Dune.” He has the skinny face and this crazy looking hair. I also thought it would be neat that when he becomes the Emperor Penguin that he tries to mimic the penguin dress code. He wears longer trench coats and cutoff gloves. He’s more a mix of 1920s retro and today. He has this industrial/grungy kind of look.
I really enjoyed drawing the character. And every script that John sends me is a totally new adventure so every month I’m getting to draw all kinds of crazy stuff.
And Ogilvy is one of my favorite characters to tackle — every single issue. I love the character and I’m excited for fans to get to see what’s going to happen with him in the next couple of issues.
Layman: I do try to keep my artists from getting bored. [Laughs]I kind of know that Jason, at heart, is a Batman fanboy so it helps the book to keep him excited. I try to have him draw as many characters as he can and different Bat-suits and different vehicles in there.
I just sort of imagine Jay, at his studio, geeking out getting to try out all these crazy Bat-things. We did a giant spread of the Bat-cave recently, which Jason just blew away. I hope you enjoyed that.
Fabok: I did. That’s one of the things that I’m very appreciative of. I was just talking with my mom the other day. She’s as big a fan of my work as anybody. And she was just saying, “You would never expect in your life to not only work on a title like ‘Detective Comics’ but also to draw all the characters that you’ve been able to draw through six, seven issues.”
And being able to tackle things like the Batcave and different Batsuits and try out some different stuff is always a lot of fun and it gets your creative juices flowing, that’s for sure.
In an upcoming issue you’re planning to explore the secret origin of Ogilvy. Can you give us a tease of what will be revealed?
Layman: If you look at the initial pitch, it’s pretty freaking different, which is fine by me. As an ex-editor, I understand how this works. It’s kind of like jazz or improv. I intended to have you understand Ogilvy earlier on but as it turns out, now it’s at the end of the arc, which is “Detective” #20. You get this coda that explains everything. Or at least gives a different dimension on him. We’re sort of saving that for last and hoping that it turns out to be poignant.
Is it equally fun to be writing and drawing classic rogues like Clayface and Ivy as it is to introduce new ones like Ogilvy? It would be pretty cool if 10 years from now I am talking to some up-and-coming creative team and they say, “Oh yeah. We love Ogilvy. He’s one of our all-time favorites.”
Layman: That’s always the hope. In the next arc, I am doing something with an established thing and finding ways to bring new stuff to it. That’s what’s great about the New 52. I’m not the biggest continuity freak. I’m not like Kurt Busiek or Mark Waid where I can tell you what happened in March 1982 in this or that issue. It’s nice to start with a little bit of a clean slate and reinvent some of these characters.
Fabok: I’m with John. I’m not a big continuity guy either. And what I’ve really liked about the New 52 is the reimagining of some of these characters. A lot of them stayed pretty classic but they’ve also made little changes to them. It’s also fun to introduce new characters or situations and draw them.
I hope that Ogilvy is a character that is going to be represented in comics in the future. I hope that’s something that continues and we can have our own little mark on Batman history.
From my perspective as an artist, everything that John has given me, I’m just trying my hardest to do the best I possibly can. And as a fan, I’m trying to draw things as I wanted to see them as a fan, from a fan’s perspective. I’m so new to this game that I still consider myself a comic book fan and I’m just lucky enough to be working in the industry.
Right from the beginning, when I learned which characters were going to be in this story, I knew right away that fans were going to respond and enjoy what John had written.
Ogilvy is leading a Joker-themed gang and bringing the other criminals of Gotham together and collectively laying blame at Joker’s feet for their crimes. One of those of the other Joker-themed gangs is the League of Smiles. What was their inspiration?
Layman: I figured this would be my only shot at Batman so I wanted to tell something that would last five years down the road. And while I wanted to complement Scott Snyder’s “Death of the Family” story, I also wanted to tell a story that kind of stood outside of Scott’s. Stood out, as in this is what happens when Joker is in town. So yes, it has to deal with “Death of the Family” but you can take it wider to mean, again, this is what happens when Joker is in town. He has an effect on people in comics and in reality.
The more practical concern is that when you are dealing with Batman, he has five titles. If you are spinning off a Joker story in “Batgirl” or “Nightwing,” Joker can appear but Batman’s got his own book. The challenge is, do I take just one scene of Scott Snyder’s story and expand it into an issue? What do I do from a practical perspective to tell a story that’s different and worthwhile? So I thought I would remove The Joker and have Batman dealing with all of these other Joker-related threats that only happen as a result of Joker.
How did you go about assembling the League of Smiles, because I just love Mr. Happy?
Layman: I just wanted something with distinct clown visuals that would be inspired by Joker but would stand up on their own. I just picked the type and left it to Jay to make really distinct, unforgettable designs. And it worked out.
Fabok: At first, it is intimidating developing characters from scratch. But I also thought that it was a brilliant take on the crossover event. Instead of just bringing The Joker into our story somehow, John created a highly emotional story and tied in the whole psychological thing — people’s attraction to evil and other dark things. Sometimes you realize in the end that is what’s truly wrong with people. And that’s kind of what happens to our character Torch.
From an artistic perspective, I had a lot of fun. I’m not a fan of clowns [Laughs] so I spent a couple of weeks looking up wacko clown designs and concepts of some different things online and basically pulled from a bunch of resources to create some original characters. But yeah, I had blast working on “Detective Comics” #16 and #17.
Layman: I like “Detective Comics” #17. It turned out great. And it’s a bit of a swerve from what you think it is. It goes from being a Joker story to sort of being something else that came out of being a Joker story. There’s a twist that pulls it back and makes it into its own thing.
I hope that twist involves the Merrymaker because he looks like a very cool character.
Layman: All I can say is that he’s in charge of the League of Smiles and he wants them to do terrible things.
Fabok: John described him as a medieval plague doctor. And he said in his script that he was surprised that no one had ever used this design as a villain in comics. Those medieval plague doctors, when you look them up on Google, they look pretty evil. They’re scary.
Layman: I was just googling images and found medieval plague doctors and thought they would make for an awesome design. I said: “Riff on this, Jay.”
Fabok: I basically took the design and made some tweaks to make it a bit more like a Batman villain and I think Merrymaker turned out really well. I really enjoyed drawing that character.
You mentioned off the top that you will be working on what is, effectively, “Detective Comics” #900. Jason, you are new to the game, but John, does a landmark issue like that mean anything to you? Is it just another feather in the cap or is it no big deal?
Layman: It’s a little bit of both. It’s definitely awesome. DC is going to get behind it and give it a lot of attention and that’s great. The flipside of it is that this is a big game of musical chairs and I just happened to be sitting on the chair when the winning number came up.
That being said, I tried to make the issue the best it could be. Jay, I don’t know if you know this but I wrote an oversized story and the backup, like I typically do, but a bigger story. Then I saw the solicitation and saw that it was 80 pages and again, I want to make the comics that I would buy. I thought 80 pages and I’m only writing 32 of it? What are they are going to fill it with?
So I came to [editor] Mike Marts and said, “I think I’ve got another short in me. Do you want it?” And he said, “Yeah. The more Layman, the better.” [Laughs] Then I came back to him and said, “I’ve got another.” All told, I wrote 50 pages, which, for someone like me that is slow, is pretty amazing. I feel like people are going to get their money’s worth of story at least from me because I don’t know what else they’re filling it with but I can feel good about handing in 50 pages.
I take the main story and each of the three backups is from a different perspective. One is from the villain. One is from the cops and one is from the perspective of what is going on with the Penguin/Ogilvy mega-story.
Fabok: That’s the cool thing about this story too, is that it’s technically “Detective Comics” #19 — and we’re working the whole ‘900’ thing into it as a wink/wink anniversary issue — but it’s not like you come to this story and all of sudden, the story arc that you’ve been going through goes out the window and turns into something totally unrelated. Everything in this issue is still going to mean something to the total arc of “Detective Comics” that we’re doing with the “Emperor Penguin” storyline, so for fans that are enjoying it, it’s just going to be like reading the next chapter of the story.
But at the same time, it’s a big, action-packed, epic Batman story and I’m putting in a lot of late hours and know I’ll be working all weekend, just to keep on track because I want to make every page in this book the best that I can.
I know it’s a big deal to be on an anniversary issue so I want to show the fans that I love what I’m doing and that I want to draw a book for them. I also want to be proud of the product that we put out in the end. And hopefully, people will respond well to this special anniversary issue and really enjoy what they are getting.
Layman: I think we can say this, because it was in “Previews, it’s a Man-Bat story. And that’s cool because we get to do the first New 52 version of Man-Bat, just like Jay got to do Mr. Freeze in the “Batman” annual.
And someone or something called ‘The 900’ plays a role in this special issue too, right?
Layman: I don’t think DC will want us to say anything just yet. I thought it was more of a story nugget to wrap the story around without it being the biggest thing in the world, but that being said, until DC lets me reveal what it is exactly, I better keep quiet.
“Detective Comics” #17, written by John Layman and featuring art by Jason Fabok, is available now.