Alan Brennert started his career writing for “Wonder Woman” and “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century,” but has since proven himself to be the rare writer who’s a master in multiple forms of media.
Likely best known by modern readers for his novels like “Moloka’i,” “Honolulu” and others, Brennert is also a Nebula Award-winning speculative fiction writer who’s published many novels and short stories, as well as an Emmy Award winning writer and producer.
Brennert has written only a handful of comics over the course of his career, but they’re considered by fans and professionals to be of the highest caliber. “Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot” was voted by CSBG readers as the best Supergirl story ever published; “To Kill a Legend” and “The Autobiography of Bruce Wayne” are regarded as some of the best Batman stories ever published, and “Batman: Holy Terror” remains one of the most popular entries of DC Comics’ Elseworlds imprint.
Now, much of Brennert’s comics work has been collected in a new book “Tale of the Batman: Alan Brennert,” featuring an amazing lineup of artists including Dick Giordano, Jim Aparo, Norm Breyfogle, Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez and Joe Staton.
CBR News: By the late 1970’s you had been publishing short stories, you had written for comics, you had broken into writing for television. Was that unusual?
Alan Brennert: Maybe a little unusual for the time. Gerry Conway, of course, wrote both comics and sf (and bought my third — and still unpublished — prose story when he was editing “The Haunt of Horror” digest for Marvel). Denny O’Neil had written comics, short stories, a novel, and even an episode of the TV series “Logan’s Run.” In fact, it was seeing Denny’s short story “The Iconoclasts,” in the April 1971 issue of “Fantastic,” that inspired me to try my hand at the sci-fi market. I’m not sure that I’ve ever thanked him for that!
How did you first break into comics? I know that you and Martin Pasko wrote “Wonder Woman” #231-232 together in 1977. Was that the first comic you wrote?
I only plotted that “Wonder Woman” two-parter, and I confess, initially it was for financial reasons — I was a struggling college student, and Marty, now a DC writer, offered me the chance to make a little extra cash. As it turned out, though, I got the exciting opportunity to write members of the Justice Society of America — characters I’d loved since their first Silver Age appearance in JLA — as guest stars. But Marty wrote the actual script. And though he did a fine job, DC elected to include only the solo stories I scripted myself in “Tales of the Batman: Alan Brennert.”
Can you talk a little about “To Kill a Legend” from “Detective Comics” #500? It’s a story people have talked about over the years.
Paul Levitz, a friend from comics fandom, had just become editor of the Batman titles when we had dinner together in L.A. in 1980. I’d been writing TV for two years, but still read the occasional comic book, and I floated an idea for a Batman story — what if Batman travels to a parallel world where Thomas and Martha Wayne are about to be murdered, and he has the chance to save them? — which Paul liked. I offered to give it to one of his Batman writers, but he asked me to write it myself, and though I hadn’t written a comic script since the one I’d submitted to Warren ten years before, I said, sure. Paul liked the script, and I assumed it would turn up as a fill-in issue of “Batman” or “Detective Comics.” I never dreamed it would become the lead story in “Detective” #500. Or that it would be reprinted in that year’s “Best of DC” digest, and later in “The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told.” Readers and professionals alike really responded to the story to a degree I hadn’t anticipated, and that led to more offers to do stories for DC and even an issue of “Daredevil” (also a favorite character of mine) for Marvel.
I squeezed these stories in between my television assignments, and in a way, they were exhilarating to write. I didn’t get any of the network or studio notes that are an inevitable part of TV writing, I didn’t have to change a line of dialogue because an actor didn’t like it, and best of all, the character development — my greatest interest, and possibly greatest strength, as a writer — weren’t cut for time or because the producers wanted more action. The stories got published exactly as I wrote them, and at a time when I felt my best work wasn’t showing up in the TV shows I was writing for, comics turned out to be a great creative outlet for me. I will always be grateful to Paul (and soon after, Dick Giordano and Denny O’Neil) for opening that door for me.
A while back, CBR readers named “Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot” from “Christmas with the Superheroes” #2 (1989) as the best Supergirl story ever published, though I suppose many probably remember it as a Deadman story. Could you talk about where the idea for this story came from? Because it is an odd short story that really is for fans.
Well, I wrote it for a fan — me. Supergirl had just been killed off in “Crisis on Infinite Earths,” and both as a reader and a writer, I was kind of pissed that she had been retconned out of existence. It seemed to me a repudiation of not just the character and her history, but the work of the writers and artists who had chronicled that history.
So when [then editor] Mark Waid asked me to write an eight-pager for “Christmas With the Superheroes” #2, I told him I wanted to do a Deadman story, then snuck in the ghost of Kara Zor-El at the end — without even telling Mark what I was going to do. Mark was understandably startled when he first read it, but he loved the story and knew exactly why I had written it. He gave it to editor-in-chief Dick Giordano, who volunteered to draw it in order to blunt some of the objections he knew he’d receive over my tiptoeing around continuity. Dick really was not only a great artist and a great editor, he was a great guy, and I’m proud to have known and worked with him. Ditto for Mark. And I was gobsmacked — and honored — when CBR’s readers chose “Auld Acquaintance” as the #1 Supergirl story ever told.
What was your experience like working with artists? You’ve worked with some great people-Dick Giordano, Jim Aparo, Norm Breyfogle, Joe Staton…
Because I always wrote full-script, I only had the opportunity to work directly with two artists. I requested that Joe Staton draw “The Autobiography of Bruce Wayne” because of his wonderful work on the JSA in the 1970s revival of “All-Star Comics.” He happened to be in L.A. visiting Marty Pasko while I was writing the script, so we got together for dinner at Hamburger Hamlet and I briefed him on the story, the Golden Age feel I was looking for in the art, and we discussed ideas.
Later, on “Holy Terror,” I worked closely with Norm Breyfogle despite the fact that we didn’t meet in person until after publication. We spoke on the phone, and he sent me his early character designs, which were very impressive and sometimes very funny — and are included, by the way, as bonus material in “Tales of the Batman.” His designs for the look of this world, complete with intricate, ornate architecture and wardrobe, was awesome stuff. Two fantastic artists who did fantastic work. But I must say, every one of my DC stories was brilliantly illustrated, regardless of whether I had any direct contact with the artist.
The first comic of yours I read was “Holy Terror.” This was one of the first Elseworlds books, I think — though with the New 52, maybe all your stories are Elseworlds, now? How did it happen? Did DC approach you and ask for an alternative universe story?
Mark Waid mentioned to me that after the huge success of “Gotham by Gaslight,” DC wanted to do more tales like it — I don’t remember if the line had been dubbed “Elseworlds” yet — and suggested a story about Batman in the future. He might have also suggested the dystopian theme, I no longer recall who came up with that. I thought about it, conceived the idea of an American theocracy, but decided it worked better as a present-day, alternate world story.
I remember reading it when it came out, and it was haunting. I imagine this came out of your concerns about the religious right and their rise.
Absolutely. It was my secular paean to the separation of church and state.
“Holy Terror” was also a longer comic than what you’d done. Did that affect the way you worked or you collaboration with Norm Breyfogle?
It did. I’d written far longer prose novels, of course, but comics stories have a completely different pacing to them, and in the past, when doing 22- or 24-page stories, I was pretty much able to pace the entire story in my head, without even an outline. But the longer form forced me to actually take 8.5″ by 11″ sheets of paper, lay down a grid, break the page into panels, and get a better feel for the pacing that way. My pal Steve Mitchell — formerly an inker for DC and now a documentary filmmaker — also helped me by batting ideas back and forth. In retrospect, I should have done “Holy Terror” Marvel style — there are places where the text is way too dense on the page, and Norm would’ve done a much better job at laying out those pages than I did.
The most recent story you did was one with Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez in 2000, I believe. How did “Guardian” come about?
DC editor Mark Chiarello called and asked me if I’d like to do an eight-page “Batman: Black and White” story as a backup in “Gotham Knights,” and it happened that I already had an idea for a story. Batman and Alan Scott, the Golden Age Green Lantern, had shared a page or two in a few post-Crisis stories, but no one had yet told the tale of how they first met. This could have been a full 22-page comic of its own, but because I only had eight pages, I did it in eight. Later, I was pleased to see writers like Ed Brubaker, in his “Legends of the Dark Knight” arc “Made of Wood,” expand that relationship in exactly the way I would have wanted to see it done — with great respect for Alan Scott’s role in Gotham’s history. Ed even gave me a nice little shout-out by including me among half a dozen names (all Batman writers) on a doorbell list.
How did this book, “Tales of Batman: Alan Brennert” come about? I know a lot of people didn’t recognize your name when it was announced, but everyone who did, was really excited by it.
Kurt Busiek, among others, has been suggesting this collection to DC for years, but it wasn’t until Mark Chiarello — who obviously knew my work! — moved over to DC Collected Editions that he picked up the ball Kurt threw and ran with it. It went up the chain of command and, I’m told, quickly got approved. I was kind of stunned when I heard they were actually doing it. I mean, I only wrote nine stories; the closest I came to having a regular run on a series were my four stories for “The Brave and the Bold.” So I’m very flattered that those stories are considered unique enough to warrant being collected. And since I was writing these characters out of love, it seems appropriate that the cover to the book features Jim Aparo’s great illustration for “The Brave and the Bold” #197, with Batman and Catwoman’s capes forming a valentine’s heart. This book is very much a valentine to characters I loved and grew up with, and which I still care about to this day.
Do you have a favorite of all the stories?
I’m very proud of “Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot,” because ultimately it was accepted into continuity and became part of the pre-Crisis Supergirl’s history. But my personal favorite, by a whisker (pun intended), is the Batman/Catwoman story “The Autobiography of Bruce Wayne.” It’s an unconventionally structured story for a comic book — essentially a romance — in which the apparent antagonist, the Scarecrow, is apprehended off-panel. That’s because I felt the true antagonist was the fear the Scarecrow generated in Batman, a fear that had defined and limited his entire life and which he finally, courageously, overcomes. My editor, Len Wein — himself one of the great Bat-writers of all time — understood all of this implicitly and couldn’t have been more supportive. And of course Len chose George Freeman to ink Joe Staton’s pencils, and the result is spectacular, perfectly melding a Golden Age feel with modern sensibilities.
In recent years you’ve focused on novel writing. People know you for “Honolulu,” “Palisades Park,” and “Molokaâ€²i.” Have you mostly left TV and comics behind?
I still have a few projects — including a possible screen adaptation of my novel “Time and Chance” — floating around Hollywood, and I’m always open to writing something for TV if the right project comes along. Same for comics. But my main focus is on novels.
As a fan I have to ask, is there any chance of a new collection of your short fiction one of these years? Because I still remember “Ma Qui” and “Her Pilgrim Soul.”
I haven’t had as much time for short fiction since I started writing historical novels — but I do have a couple of ideas for stories I want to write, given the time. Glad to know there are fans of my short stories out there — I’ve always loved short story collections, though publishers hate them because with few exceptions none of them sell very well.
I recently finished the first hundred pages of a new Hawai’i novel and it’s currently under submission to publishers. I hope to have more news about this soon.
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