In 1939, the hard-boiled detective series known as “Detective Comics” forever changed with the publication of issue #27 debuting a strange masked figure on the cover named The Batman. Sales exploded and Batman was moved front and center, where he has remained the star of “Detective Comics” for over 70 years. Writer Scott Snyder is the latest to take on DC Comics’ second-longest running title, pitting recently anointed Dark Knight Dick Grayson against a host of deadly criminals determined to test the young Batman.
Best known for his short story collection “Voodoo Heart” and his original Vertigo series “American Vampire,” Snyder is also the creative force behind the newly-announced “Batman: Gates of Gotham” miniseries. Infusing “Detective Comics” with an overwhelming sense of horror, Snyder has thrilled critics and fans alike with his gritty Gotham and sinister new characters like the self-anointed psychopath James Gordon Jr. In the dead of the night, THE BAT SIGNAL lit the skies and Snyder answered the call — after he put his four-year-old son to bed, of course.
“He’s just old enough to like superheroes, so he thinks I go to work and tell Batman what to do that day,” the writer told CBR with a laugh before escorting us on a walk through the streets of Gotham where his upcoming “Hungry City” arc involves murder, mystery and a dead killer whale.
CBR News: In your upcoming “Hungry City” arc in “Detective Comics,” you’ve got a dead girl and a dead whale washing up in Gotham. What can you tell us about the story beyond that?
Scott Snyder: The story starts with a bang — I hope people enjoy it! It’s one of my favorite openings that we’ve done so far. The first cycle is about how Gotham is changing with Dick under the cowl. In terms of the population [of the city], the actual citizens can be more vicious than they were in certain ways with Bruce, because the city is changing into a fiercer, meaner, younger adversary for Dick. Similarly, this cycle is really about the new faces of the underworld, the worlds of organized crime that have moved in since the fall of the Falcones and the Maronis and the fall of the Black Mask. So we’re introducing a whole bunch of new faces, one of which is my favorite character so far, the daughter of Tony Zucco, the man who killed Dick’s parents. Her name is Sonya and she actually claims to be the victim in the whole case. According to her and Commissioner Gordon, she’s a legitimate businesswoman — she was never crooked. She started a successful upstart bank but she can’t escape the legacy of her father, so in some ways, she has things in common with Dick in the way that he’s haunted by the legacy of what happened with her father and his parents as well. They have an interesting connection that I enjoy writing. They share this ugly history and they are both trying to get away from it.
You’ve spoken before of the way the city is something of a Black Mirror, throwing your fears back at you. What do the villains in “Hungry City,” tell us psychologically about Dick?
For me, Dick’s strengths and weaknesses are very different from Bruce’s in that Dick has a much more explicit faith in the human character and in people in general. My feeling is the way the city will challenge him is to show him how dark and vicious people can be. With the Maronis and the Falcones, in some ways there was a kind of code of honor, even though they were pretty bad criminals at the end of the day. There was a kind of order to the way they behaved. These new characters are sort of younger, more vicious, modern criminals, trying to fight their way into the underworld in this power vacuum. They really do reflect a certain aspect of Dick’s psychology in that he’s used to dealing with Bruce’s rogue gallery, these criminals that have a dignity about the way they behave. These [new] characters are ones that break the rules and aren’t afraid of Batman. That’s one of the big things about them: they don’t have any fear at all of the Bat. That’s something that really shocks Dick, and Tim [Drake, Red Robin] as well.
You mention Tim — are other members of the Bat-family involved in “Hungry City?”
You see Tim. Tim is definitely a character who has a bond with Dick Grayson that’s really interesting, in that they are so close. Having re-read “Prodigal” recently, and some of the early stuff with both of them together, they really have chemistry as two former Robins. He’s a character I like using a lot.
I haven’t used Damian yet. I plan on it, I love reading Damian — I’m just intimidated a little bit by using him. He throws a little bit of comic relief into things, so I’ve been trying to avoid up to this point because Tony [Daniels] and Grant [Morrison] and Pete [Tomasi] have used him so well. I thought, this is sort of a darker book and maybe it would make more sense to keep him out of there. But he’ll be in there soon. And Barbara figures in there in a big way as well.
As much as Batman and Gordon obviously are, the very city of Gotham feels like a character in the series as well.
This is something I talked about a lot with [series artists] Jock and Francesco Francavilla and Dave Barons, the colorist. The main theme of the entire run is Dick Grayson coming face-to-face with a new Gotham that is re-shaping itself to match him in a way that brings his worst fears to life. Jock and Francesco have done such an amazing job of making the city look, composition-wise and architecturally, menacing and strange and unsettling. Dave, as the colorist, has given it this real primal, bold, strange color palate. We want it to feel like a place that’s very menacing and out of sorts with what you’d expect from a regular city. It feels almost like a transforming, unstable, volcanic kind of place all the time. It was something we’ve been trying to do consciously with the series.
And then in the Commissioner Gordon backup, that whole theme of the Black Mirror, the fun-house mirror that Gotham is, is one singular theme that stretches through both of the stories. For Commissioner Gordon, it’s similar in the way that his worst fear is his son coming back, this character he’s never been able to figure out. Gordon’s all about logic and being able to add up clues and come to a firm conclusion about something. He’s one of the best detectives there is, yet his son is a complete enigma to him. There’s something certainly wrong with James Jr., that’s clear! The difference is, Barbara thinks he’s killed dozens of people and he’s one of the scariest people to come in and out of Gotham. But there’s no proof of that. So Jim believes in some ways what he wants to believe, even if he knows it might not be true, which is that his son is essentially an anti-social personality. The thing that frustrates Gordon constantly is, there is no answer. His worst nightmare is that one of the people he loves most in the world is damaged or has turned against him with no reason. There are no clues to add up. He’s obsessive about this idea that maybe it was the fall from the bridge, or maybe the city twisted him.
In this upcoming issue, #875, which I will go on record as saying is our best issue so far, we tell the real back-story. It’s a complete story, all about Jim and James. I’m really excited; it’s the story I’ve looked forward to telling for a long time. What I really want is for readers to have to side with either Barbara or with Jim and think maybe James is as bad as Barbara says he is, or maybe he’s not. He makes a really strong argument later on for why he’s not as bad as she likes to think he is. There will be an answer. We won’t play the ambiguity card for a long time. But I’d like for people to be detectives themselves in the book and have fun trying to figure out where he’s going to fall. Is he one of the scariest characters to walk the streets of Gotham? Or is he a troubled and misunderstood person?
Along those lines, why did you decide to bring Jr. back to “Detective Comics?”
“Batman: Year One” by Frank Miller is one of my favorite Batman stories of all time — along with “The Dark Knight Returns” and “The Killing Joke” — but “Year One” is the one I remember reading parts of as it came out so vividly, and being so floored by it, when I was ten. In that book, one of the main plot points is Commissioner Gordon’s son is kidnapped by criminals who want to intimidate him to stop his crusade against crime in Gotham and become one of the crooked cops. There’s this moment where Gordon and Bruce meet for one of the first times as Batman and Commissioner Gordon and Batman saves his son. But the way he saves him is, the son falls off the bridge and you think the son is going to die and Bruce dives off the bridge and catches the son and hands him back to Gordon. The strange thing is, he’s never really been mentioned again!
I’ve had my eye on that character for a long time, thinking, what happened to him, where has he been? Over the years as a die-hard Batman fan, I kept waiting for him to reappear. I understood it might be risky, making him a character that’s really frightening. You know, it’s Commissioner Gordon — does he really need to have a psychotic son? But my feeling is what Gotham really does is challenge you in these ways that shake you to the core. For me, we try to handle James with a lot of dignity and not just as a cackling villain or a typical super villain. We wanted him to be tailored very carefully to Jim Gordon’s worst fear, which is a completely enigmatic character who doesn’t seem to have any conscience or compassion, something Gordon can’t relate to. We tried to make him a villain very specific to Gordon’s own psychology and we had a lot of fun making him who he is. I hope fans like him. We weren’t thinking of throwing him in there as just a sensational thing like, “Look at Commissioner Gordon’s son, he might be a psychopath!” [Laughs] It’s one part of this giant story, which is about Gotham and its relationship to people who try to do good. It’s not just an evil place, it challenges you in the deepest ways. But if you can overcome those things, you come out stronger. That’s what James Jr. is for Jim. It’s his worst night as a cop, as a father, as a detective.
Under your pen, “Detective” has taken on a much darker, almost horrific tone. You’ve written horror stories before, as well as the horror-tinged “American Vampire.” Does your background in this genre influence your take on the Dark Knight?
Yes. I mean, I’ve always been a big horror buff. I grew up on the ’80s slasher films, so there might be some kind of John Carpenter, Stephen King in my DNA as a writer! I just think my favorite stories about Gotham are the ones that are deeply frightening, like the “Killing Joke” or “The Dark Knight Returns.” It’s the same thing with “Year One,” in a lot of ways. It’s the first time you see all this stuff taken really seriously in this dark, nightmare way, where the Bat comes blasting through the window. It makes it serious. Bruce Wayne — and Dick Grayson, but definitely Bruce — is a character who used to, before “Year One,” crusade because his parents were killed. He was looking for justice and revenge. But once those books came along in the ’80s, they re-wrote the character and you realize it’s about obsession and pathology as much as it is about justice and revenge. He’s becoming the thing that frightened him most out of this obsessive need to heal this wound that will never heal. There’s something scary in that, in his single-mindedness.
That’s why the Joker is such an amazing foil for Batman. All of his villains are. There’s a point in “Dark Knight Returns” where Harvey Dent asks, “When you look at me, why don’t you laugh?” And Batman says, “What I see when I look at you is a reflection.” The villains are elements of his own psychology. Two-Face is the duality of his life, the Joker is what would happen if he fell completely into that underbelly in the cave, if he loses his grip on reality and breaks his rule. To me, Batman is a scary book. It’s the darkest corner of the DCU, as fun as it is. Personally, my favorite Batman stories are really scary, not because of murderers and monsters, but because they explore that idea that Bruce as a character is scary in his own right.
There are about a dozen Batman and Batman-related books set in Gotham currently flying around — what makes “Detective” stand out from the pack?
Mike Marts, the Bat-editor, is wonderful about letting people cultivate the Bat-ecosystems in their own books. I’m a big fan of what Bryan Q. Miller is doing over at “Batgirl,” and the same with Tony on “Batman.” We email scripts back and forth. Part of the fun is being able to make your own distinctive bat-world where “Batman” is more colorful and super villain-oriented and “Batgirl” is one of the brighter spots in Gotham and “Batman and Robin” is about the circus-like atmosphere that follows a new Batman in the cowl and has more comedy.
“Detective Comics” is about Batman solving mysteries in a hardcore “C.S.I.” way. I loved “Elegy,” I love Greg Rucka, I’m a huge fan of basically everything he’s ever done, but there was something for me when Batwoman finished in “Detective Comics” where I really missed seeing Batman solve crimes in Gotham in ways that were grounded and gritty and showed how he was the best detective in the world, whether Bruce or Dick. We wanted our book to be Batman, front and center, his detective skills put to the test, which is why the main set piece is this crime lab he shares with Jim Gordon. We really wanted it to be grounded, for it to be smaller and for the psychology to be a big part of it as they are constantly trying to figure out why these crimes are committed. We wanted the psychology of Dick Grayson to be on display and show how it’s changing in terms of Jim and Barbara and Gotham itself.
The art in “Detective” has certainly been beautiful, and many fans are excited for this next arc with the returning Jock. How did this collaboration come about?
I feel like the luckiest guy in the DCU! Francesco, Jock and Dave are the best team, and Rafael Albuquerque on “American Vampires,” him and Dave McCaig the colorist are as well. I don’t know which comic book gods have been smiling on me, but I really lucked out!
How it came about is kind of funny. I heard Jock might be available when I got the feature on “Detective,” so I actually just called him up myself and said, “Listen, I love your stuff, I really think you are the guy for the feature in ‘Detective Comics.'” He was very sweet and polite — and he’s very British, when we had our conversation he was on his way to dinner at the pub! He said he wanted to talk about the story and we were both going to San Diego, so we decided we’d meet up and talk about it. I tracked him down in San Diego and we all went out for drinks, him and Cliff Chiang and some of the Vertigo guys. I’m a small person. I’m not a big man. I’m like five foot eight and they are all taller and bigger than me and I thought, if I don’t keep up with them, they’ll think I’m a total loser and he’ll never do the story! So we were going back and forth and drinking, and I was like, “Listen, it’s going to be great and this whole theme is this mirror and it’s going to be great” and on and on. He really liked it from the start. I was so excited that he said he liked it, I got back and I was completely trashed. I got back to my hotel room and wrote Mike Marts, and I literally fell asleep writing the email. I was like, “Mike! I think Jock is innnnnnnnnnn,” because my hand was still on the keyboard when I woke up! But we were all very excited.
I really respect the way he and Francesco signed on. They both wanted to hear the story first and see what it was going to be about. Being from a literary background, in the literary world, when you write a short story or a novel, its just you all alone. For me, the whole pleasure of working in comics is being collaborative with the artists and the editor. I definitely give tight scripts, but I want to give them room to play, so I wanted make sure they’d both be up for flexing their muscles a little bit. They were, and they’ve been incredible. I guarantee you, the strongest work both in writing and in art is coming up in the next issues — I will bet my reputation on that! I cannot say enough good things about how amazing the pages are from both Francesco and Jock.
You have such a definite vision for “Detective Comics.” What was it about Jock and Francesco’s artwork that made you decide they had to be involved in this project?
There’s a precision to the way he draws both the architecture and the human body, but there’s also an unstable quality to it, where it’s scratchy and edgy and kinetic. It feels a little distorted and a little strange all the time. That’s the way I wanted Gotham to feel and the way I wanted it to feel for Batman. So it was a perfect fit in how his style really matched the feel of the book. It can be very precise and sharp and at the same time slightly off-kilter in terms of the angles and the surprises that from the composition.
Francesco, from the beginning, felt perfect for the Gordon backup and the issues he’s doing. He’s really stepped his game up. I can’t wait for people to see his upcoming issue, #875 — he thinks it’s his best work!
Of course, “Detective” isn’t the only Batman series you are working on. You were just announced on the “Batman: Gates of Gotham” miniseries. What can you tell us about that comic?
What it’s about stems from conversations I’ve been having with Mike Marts about trying to develop stories exploring the history of Gotham. Some of my favorite things — like the Ed Brubaker story, “Made of Wood,” and some of the Gotham underground stuff — I love glimpses of Gotham the way it was. I really enjoyed “Return of Bruce Wayne” for that reason, too. I feel it’s something I would like to read.
I was talking to him about exploring Gotham, not as an “Elseworlds” thing, but Gotham in the ’30s and ’40s and what the police force and the criminals were like. We started talking about the possibility of developing a story that was a mystery in the present, bringing together members of the Bat-family like Dick and Tim and some surprising ones as well and then stretched all the way back to an unsolved case to do with the building of Gotham itself in the gilded age. So it’s a story that deals with a wrong that was committed around the turn of the century, when the big skyscrapers of Gotham were first going up, and a crime that is being committed right now that’s trying to draw attention to the secret dark history of Gotham’s design.
What has it been like co-writing with Kyle Higgins?
It’s been great, he’s an animal! He’s definitely a great partner. Technically I’m supposed to be credited as “story by,” so it’s not really co-written by us. It’s a story by both of us, scripted by him. That was always the plan, scripted by him, story by both of us. I have so much on my plate — I love the story and I’d love to write the story myself if I could. There’s just a lot between “American Vampire,” the “American Vampire” mini and “Detective” and some of the exciting stuff coming down the pipe for fall too. It’s a lot! So he’s really doing a lot of the work when it comes to writing, but I’m doing some as well. We’re working very closely together. I think it’s a 50-50 share of ideas and brainstorming and we talk every day about things we’re excited about that are coming up in the series. He’s really been a pro; I have very high hopes for his future in the DCU.
Ok, I’ve got to ask — according to your Wikipedia page you developed your views on horror and writing while working at Disney World. Is this true?
I did work at Disney! [Laughs] I was a janitor there in the Magic Kingdom, then I was a roller-skating janitor and then I was a character. I was Buzz Lightyear and Eeyore and Pluto. I did it after college because I wanted to be a writer. I think the general consensus in my family has been, if you want to be a writer, you go work at “The New Yorker” or a big publishing house. It was my way of rebelling, saying ,”Oh yeah? I’ll go be a janitor at Disney World!” It was fun and funny but it was also really scary. It was a wonderfully frightening, bizarre experience. I think the line between fantasy and reality gets a little bit blurred when you work there. It’s so important to you to maintain the fantasy for kids and visiting families that this place is magical — meanwhile, you’re pushing around garbage cans in eighty-degree heat. Being a character, wearing the fur in that heat definitely teaches you patience, which is a good skill for comic writing! And Buzz Lightyear was a superhero, which was good practice for comics. Method acting!
As you intimated, many people’s attitudes towards writing is that the worthwhile stuff is done at big established magazines like “The New Yorker.” Do you find there’s a stigma against comics in the literary community?
Honestly, I thought there would be more of one. I was curious to see how my literary friends reacted, and mostly they’ve been saying, “Hey, how did you get into that?” What you realize is that the borders between the comics world and the literary world and the movie world and the TV world are so much more porous than they like to admit, and they have been for a long time. You have the obvious frontrunners like Neil Gaiman who does everything, or Brian K. Vaughn or Greg Rucka, but at the same time, you have a quality of writing in comics and TV and genre fiction that has been there for a long time. I think it’s especially high in comics right now across the board, Marvel and DC. I think it’s hard to throw a stone and hit a bad book. It’s a really exciting time because I feel like part of a group of writers like Jeff Lemire, who is one of my best friends at this point and Jason Aaron and Geoff Johns; they work in these different fields like comics or TV or kids books and they tell a great story.
I’m teaching a comic book course to graduate fiction writing students at Sarah Lawrence, so if that’s any indication of how less of a stigma there used to be, it’s a good sign. Similarly, I teach a course at NYU that’s about the crossover between fiction comics and literary fiction in the last 25 years. It’s more par for the course to expect things to cross over. A couple years ago, the top ten books at the “New York Times” were “Fun Home,” a graphic novel, “The Road,” a post-apocalyptic thriller, “Never Let Me Go,” a science fiction book with literary leanings and so on. It’s a really exciting time and there is a lot of fluidity. But the golden rule, whether I’m teaching comics or literary fiction, is the same — write the story you would like to see. It doesn’t have to be the best thing ever. It doesn’t have to be the most important story of all time. It just has to be the one you would like to see more than any other. That’s what you should try to write.
You were ten when you read “Year One.” How old is your own son going to be before you let him read your “Detective” Comics?”
He’s already getting to where it’s very hard to keep him away from the Batman animated stuff and the “Brave and the Bold” and all that. I’d like to say he would be thirty at least before he gets to open up a dark comic book! [Laughs] But I imagine I’d be sort of hypocritical if I didn’t let him take a look before he started to get into his teenage years!
Any last words of wisdom for you readers?
Thanks to everybody who reads the book — it means a lot and we’re working around the clock to deliver something that will make you guys happy, I promise!
“Detective Comics” issue #875 hits stores March 30. “Batman: Gates of Gotham” releases May 25