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CCI, Day 3 – “Oz” Creator Tom Fontana writes “Batman: Hopelessness & Faith”

by  in Comic News Comment
CCI, Day 3 – “Oz” Creator Tom Fontana writes “Batman: Hopelessness & Faith”

Tom Fontana is a writer who creates worlds filled with, oftentimes, some of the worst examples of human beings ever seen on television. The creator of “Oz” and “Homicide: Life on the Street” has been lauded for his crime fiction writing, creating complex and believable characters who do unspeakable things, yet viewers still tune in each and every week to see what’s to come next for them. It only makes sense one of the next characters he’ll tackle will be one of the greatest comic book icons of all time, the Batman.

“Batman: Hopelessness & Faith” (working title) is a new hardcover graphic novel coming from DC Comics in fall 2006 written by Fontana, joined by artist Cliff Chiang. CBR News caught up with both men to learn more about their plans for this book.

“It’s funny trying to talk about this story because I’m actively working on it, so it’s like, ‘Oh, so, what is this all about?'” Fontana told CBR News from his New York City office Tuesday afternoon. The book is in its early stages, but Fontana does have a clear idea where they’re going with the book. He said in his story, Batman finds himself pretty much alone – Oracle and the rest of his support team are gone, except for Alfred. His place in Gotham isn’t as secure as it once was, with the police back to treating him poorly and the public questioning their faith in the Dark Knight. Ultimately, the book is about Batman’s relationship with Alfred, and even that is becoming strained.

“Basically, Alfred needs a heart transplant and Bruce Wayne gets involved in illegal trafficking of organs that’s connected to Mr. Freeze,” said Fontana. “Who is, of course, the most logical one to be able to preserve an organ. So, that’s the thing. The morality of being rich and able to pay to move ahead of the line to save someone you care about. If you’ve got bundles of cash, or a certain amount of celebrity, suddenly your name moves up on those donor lists.”

Batman’s own actions to save the life of his trusted friend and employee Alfred has another unintended side-effect — it’s empowering other villains who call Gotham home.

“What happens is Batman’s having a lot of trouble not only with the Gotham City Police, but the people of the city are also losing respect for him,” explained Fontana. “Bit by bit, he begins to get very bitter and angry towards the kind of facileness of the public and their willingness to just turn against him when they perceive he’s not behaving exactly the way that they decided that Batman should behave. That, in turn, causes him to take some actions which he’s kind of going out of his way to prove how shallow they are, if you know what I mean. So, that causes a lot of villainy to be able to rise up in the city.”

While “Batman: Hopelessness and Faith” sees one of Batman’s great villains in Mr. Freeze making an appearance, Fontana says he’s purposely kept out many of the supporting characters in Batman’s world like James Gordon and others.

“There are a couple of cameos by some of the bad guys, but that’s it. When my editor, Matt Idleson, told me where the comic was at this point, what appealed to me was Batman’s isolation,” explained Fontana. “So, I’m really writing towards that as opposed to here’s this whole support team. And like I said, it’s even a point that he feels everyone’s abandoned him.”

Those familiar with Fontana’s writing from television, especially his work on “Oz,” know he can write some very bleak and dark stories. Will we see the same in this new graphic novel?

“I’ll say this: I think I’m being more tentative in my writing than I should be and I’m very appreciative to Matt that he’s encouraging me to do what I do best. So, I think the final product, whether it’ll be as grim as ‘Oz’ I don’t know, but it’ll certainly be closer to that.”

In an episode of Fonana’s “The Jury” on Fox last year, Fontana was able to get members of the “Oz” cast to guest in an episode. The writer said he’d love to do something along those lines with this graphic novel as well.

“Right now what I’m trying to do is just get the story and the characterizations sorted. I’ve included little guideposts from my career in there, but they’re fairly subtle I hope.”

As for how Fontana became involved in writing a comic, the writer says it’s one of those very bizarre kismet kind of stories.

“When I was a kid I was always reading Superman and Batman because I am so old that I pre-date Marvel, so Superman and Batman were really my guys. As a writer, you always want to try something else. You always want to go to a place, as a writer, that you’ve never been before to keep you on your toes and your writing doesn’t become repetitive and stale,” explained Fontana. “So, one day someone had sent me a Frank Miller Batman story and I was like, ‘Man, I’ve always loved this stuff and I’d love to write a comic book, but I don’t know how to do it.’ So, I called my agent who are, of course, Hollywood movie guys and I told them I want to write a comic book. I asked them, ‘How do I do that?’ They said, ‘We don’t know. Nobody every wants to write a comic book. There’s no money in it!’ And I said, ‘But I’m not interested in the money!’

“So, they set up a meeting with Stan Lee and I. I’m telling all my friends I have a meeting with some guy named Stan Lee and they all said, ‘Oh My God! He’s God!’ I know he’s a big deal, but because I never read his comics I was less impressed. I was in LA and we sat and talked for an hour and we ended up having a great conversation. I could see why he is ‘Stan Lee’ after having had the meeting with him.

“So, anyway, I came back home and I was thinking about my conversation with Stan and then I got a letter from Matt Idleson saying, ‘I suppose this is the stupidest letter you’re ever going to get. I know you’ll have no interest in this.’ Now, I have never met Matt. How he, at that moment in time, could have known … well, it’s so bizarre! So I called him and told him I’d love to do a Batman story. We tossed around a whole bunch of ideas and we finally landed on this.

“Clearly, I’m meant to do this, because how else would it have happened this way?”

But did his agents try to convince him away from writing a comic considering it pays so little in comparison to his television writing?

“No. They’re so used to me going off and doing different things like plays and stuff. As long as I promise to come back and earn them money, they’ll let me go off and do projects of my own.”

But why the long wait for the book to come out? “Batman: Hopelessness and Faith” isn’t due to ship until the third quarter of 2006. Fontana explained that his current development schedule necessitates the long lead-time.

“I’ve been working on this on and off because I don’t want to work on it piecemeal. I want to work on it when I can really give it my full attention,” said Fontana. “So, I work on it, then I put it aside, do something else for a while and then come back to it. It’s like I’m painting the Sistine Chapel and it’s going to take me 15 years.”

While Fontana read comics as a kid, it’s not until recently that he’s returned to exploring the world of sequential art.

“My working knowledge of Superman and Batman at this point is 40 years old, so it’s been enormous amounts of fun catching up with it. Obviously, the art is so much more extraordinary than anything that existed when I was a kid and the storytelling is so much more edgy, dangerous, scary and bleak than when I was a kid. I feel like, in a way, that comics matured [to] the same point that I did. In the last six to eight months I have really gotten back into it. I’m reading ‘Sleeper,’ ‘100 Bullets’… really I’m reading everything.”

One of the treats Fontana’s had in working with DC so far is the time spent working with his editor Matt Idelson, who’s given the writer very helpful feedback.

“I give a lot of notes to writers, so I know how hard it can be to give notes,” said Fontana. “He knows what works and what doesn’t work. He knows his job really, really well. Because I’ve never done this before, I’m really relying on him to guide me. His notes have been very clear and specific. I wouldn’t have a clue what I was doing if it wasn’t for him.”

Having written primarily for television and film, Fontana’s found the difference in writing a comics script to be a fascinating journey.

“Writing a comic is much more like directing a film,” explained Fontana. “I’m really storyboarding the story. I’ve never done that. Because I don’t direct, I’m the kind of writer who feels it’s not my job to tell the director how to shoot the picture. It’s my job to give him or her all the ammunition they need to make the best film possible. Whereas with ‘Batman: Hopelessness and Faith,’ I’m really trying to indicate to the artist what’s in my head, so I have to be much more specific in an odd sort of way. It’s thrilling and exciting because I’m flexing muscles I would never even flex if I were writing a screenplay. It’s been fascinating.

“Also, it is different enough that I can’t rely on any of my old tricks. When you write as much film or television as I have you have little magic tricks that you know you can pull off if you get stuck and I can’t rely on any of that with this. In that regard it’s very challenging. I also think it’s making my other writing better.”

Fontana says he’s absolutely “having a ball” playing in the comics world and hopes to be able to do more in the future.

“For me, it’s really a matter of time because I’m so busy with the other stuff. I never want to commit myself until I know I can really focus on it. I’d love to do a Superman story next because, like I said, those two were the ones I read the most as a kid. It’s one of these funny things that you never expect to happen and then suddenly it happens and you think, ‘Oh, this is so cool!’

Fontana also mentioned briefly that he’s been talking with DC about adapting some of their books into either TV series of films, but couldn’t offer more details than that. In an interview back in February, Fontana revealed he’s also working on a “Sleeper” screenplay. Fontana says they’re still talking and have a few ideas on what they’d like to do with the critically lauded comic series.

“We’re trying to decide whether [‘Sleeper’] should be a movie or a series,” said Fontana “There’s something really kind of terrific about it if we could do it as a series because it would be unlike anything that’s been on TV.

“In terms of doing it as a movie I have a fairly clear sense in my head how I’d want to do it. Without giving away too much, it would be like the ‘anti-Spider-Man.’ We’d want to keep it really down and dirty and not big on special effects and what not. I think the story is much more about his personal dilemma than any kind of powers he has. You don’t need all that stuff, that flying through the air and turning into a fireball kind of stuff.”

As for the artist on “Batman: Hopelessness & Faith,” Cliff Chiang said what attracted him most to working on this book was the opportunity to work with Tom Fontana.

“It was also tempting to work in the hardcover format,” Chiang told CBR News. “It allows us to tell a story with a different pace and I want to present the book as a very distinct package, from the design to the artwork. As much as I love the regular monthly comics, it’s nice to be able to produce a high-end volume.”

As you might expect from what Fontana said above, the writer will be providing his artist with a full script, but Chiang is being given the freedom to reinterpret things as necessary.

“That allows me to honor the work the writer has done, without being locked into a scene that might not work on a visual level,” explained Chiang.

While Fontana has a rich background in television, he’s a total neophyte when it comes to comics. Chiang says there’s always a difference when working with someone new to comics writing, but in Fontana’s case that’s not a worry at all.

“I think we all tend to forget that comics is a medium with its own specific rules and strengths,” said Chiang. “It’s not easy to write comics, but when they work, there’s a special magic about how they read and create a world inside the reader’s imagination. It’s unique and we should be proud of that, rather than seeing comics (and by extension, ourselves) as the inferior stepchild of film and literature.

“That said, Tom brings years of professional storytelling craft to the table, and that’s huge in itself. I read a short script sample from him and was amazed at how Tom was able to dramatize moments, the whole ‘show, don’t tell’ mantra that we all repeat, but rarely execute. It was effortless, and very, very impressive.”

Chiang says he’s looking forward to the artistic challenges Fontana and the graphic novel format will be presenting him with.
“I’m always trying to improve my work, both the artwork and storytelling. And there’s something about working on a fancy book that pushes you even harder,” admitted Chiang. “Of course, I have a great respect for Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli’s work, and ‘Batman: Year One’ is a touchstone for me. As far as style goes, if you look over the books I’ve done, it’s a continual evolution, so I’m not sure yet what it will look like exactly. Short ears, though!”

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