Lee Bermejo has been making comics for years, but this year he's finally started to have his say.
For the first time in his career, the longtime artist is not only writing monthly comics but pushing the boundaries of what he's able to do with two ongoing series. On the one hand is "Suiciders" -- the post-disaster Los Angeles gladiator epic where he crafts the story and the art for Vertigo Comics. In a very different realm is DC Comics' "We Are... Robin" -- a brand new take on the Boy Wonder concept that recasts Batman's sidekick as a gang of Gotham teenagers looking for their own kind of justice, written by Bermejo with art from Jorge Corona, Rob Haynes and Khary Randolph.
CBR News spoke with Bermejo about the long path to taking the creative reins on the pair of titles, and below the artist digs into the challenges of serving both his artistic side and his story side, the true meaning behind the mystery of the Saint, the enigmatic lead of "Suiciders," how "We Are... Robin" is his answer to the sidekick conundrum and what pieces of a Frank Miller classic may show up in his first big DC Universe story.
CBR News: Lee, the last time you and I talked it was when "Batman: Noel" came out. Your Vertigo book "Suiciders" was your first major writing and drawing gig since then, and it's a quantum leap forward in terms of complexity. Did doing that more direct graphic novel embolden you to try something more ambitious here?
Lee Bermejo: It's interesting because "Suiciders" came together before I did "Noel." I had it kind of on the back burner in various forms probably since 2012. So with "Noel," it was really a case of me saying, "Why don't I test the waters here? Why don't I play with a character I know and do something that's a little more... maybe not traditional but accessible." There's something to be said for doing a story with Batman. So maybe there was a bit of insecurity on my part in terms of taking "Suiciders" where I wanted it to go at that point in time. I wanted to test the waters and try something a bit more "safe."
"Suiciders" is by far the most complicated story I've worked on in regards to what it required from me in terms of visual storytelling, and there's some stuff in it that I didn't have the faith in my own ability to do initially. Now I feel... well, definitely not like I'm a master of my craft. [Laughs] But I feel like I can do stuff like "We Are... Robin" where I work with another artist and try to pull off "Suiciders" as well.
Reading "Suiciders," it feels like there are scenes that appeal to the artist side of you -- the gladiatorial action stuff -- as well as stuff that stretch your writing muscles with this dialogue-heavy noir thread.
Definitely. There are parts of the book that for me have been very different. The book was sold as this "beat 'em up" gladiator book, but at the heart of it is this L.A. noir, post-disaster story. That was really what was more intriguing to me about the book -- not so much the action piece. That's still a draw, but it's a challenge to pull off the more subtle moments within that.
The first arc of the book is pushing toward its conclusion, and we've seen this very stark difference between the people of New Angeles who live a life of extreme plastic surgery and wealth while in Lost Angeles, it's people trying to escape abject poverty. Was this class warfare idea the driving focus of the series in some ways?
I think that as the story is wrapping up, people are going to be introduced to the real theme of the book, which is identity. It's all about who you are as a person. There are people who lose themselves trying to achieve goals and essentially become someone they may not be. I think that's what's driving the story, and you look for other thematic elements that can play with that well. One of those is this idea of the haves and have nots. That's also something that makes this very Los Angeles idea of "Who am I going to be today?" more interesting because people who don't have a lot want more. It asks the question of what some people who don't have a lot, how far would they go to achieve a new status and to be a person they think they should be even if it's not who they are.
I think that's ultimately the theme of this first arc while we're also introducing people to this world. Because that part is going to be the structure from which the story is formed. It's all about juggling that. I have to establish this world so people understand the rules while also telling a human story in there as well.
The promise of that first arc is that we will learn about the Saint's background. We've been seeing his life at the top of these games while there's another up-and-comer fighting his way up the ranks from the destitute side of things. I have a sense that the reveal of the Saint's identity might bring them closer together, but how in a broad sense does it change the flow of the story?
That's absolutely it. It's something where I have to put people in this position where they understand more about this man, but it's very hard to talk about what the ramifications are because so much happens after issue #4 that will push the plot toward the finish line. I can definitely say that I'm pushing you towards the story of who this guy is, and it'll be cool when you see it all.
Flipping to the DCU side of things, "We Are... Robin" seems to be one of the most drastic departures from what we've seen before in a June launch full of that kind of book. What are the origins of this?
Essentially, I had this Robin idea. I've been kicking this idea around for a long time as well -- probably since I finished "Noel." It's really all about trying to solve this problem of Robin. How does that work? This idea of a teenage sidekick -- of a minor who adults are putting into harm's way? I know there are people in the context of a comic book world who will say, "Ah, it's just part of the fun." But how can I approach that concept in a way that's interesting and new and creates some drama? Honestly, that concept was just something that never worked for me.
So this was born of me wondering how I could get into this. How can I change the idea of how a teenage sidekick might work? That was the initial spark, and when Mark Doyle took over the Bat line at DC, I started talking to him about doing something. Since he had been one of the people in the past that I'd actually talked about this idea with, he asked me about it. But by then I said, "That idea? I think I was looking at it too small. I think there should be a lot of these kids who are part of some kind of underground organization." That's where it started to come together, and Mark and I did a lot of brainstorming to sculpt this into what it is now. I'm super excited about it, and I can't wait for people to be introduced to how we're going to do this story.
As far as its relationship to the other Bat books, it very much fits in without trying to work its way into the other stories in an intrusive way. These are kids who are real teenagers. None of them have superpowers. It's a youth movement, and so I wanted to try and approach things from a grounded perspective. So in "Batman" you'll have this robot Batman running around, but our book will be a bit more "street." It's more down to earth. None of these kids have training, and some of them aren't particularly good at what they're trying to do. [Laughs]
And it seems like this story also has a certain class element to it, much like "Suiciders." Your lead character is Duke -- the young African American kid who showed up in Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo's "Endgame" story, and it's not gone unnoticed that he's one of the few Robins who's not a white, black-haired kid who goes to private school.
[Laughs] Right. Part of that is that I just talked to Greg and Scott about what they were thinking in terms of the character, and they were gracious enough to let me assimilate him into this book and really flesh him out as a character. He's turned into a character who I really like. You hope to find a someone -- specifically in a book like this where there's a lot of characters -- who can really be the reader's eyes. Duke is our way into this story and this concept. In that sense, it's fun because it allows us to tell a story about a kid who's so different for this. I've been calling it a "Coming of Rage" story. [Laughter] It's a kid who's very much trying to figure out what works in his life, and all these kids are in the same boat. I've said before, it's one thing to say, "How cool. There's this We Are Robin movement. I'm putting #WeAreRobin in my Twitter feed." But it's another thing to actually live it -- to actually put your life in jeopardy and try to make your city a better place. That's been something that's fun to play with -- finding out what it really means to be a vigilante.
One of your collaborators on the series, Khary Randolph, recently talked about the book at a DC convention panel, and he said that part of the inspiration here is the gang scenes from Frank Miller's "Dark Knight Returns." With that in mind, how do you think this book plays into the legacy of the Batman franchise overall?
That is most definitely a part of it. I can't talk too much about the future issues yet, but you'll see as this book progresses that the seeds of other things that people know very well and that readers are familiar with will get planted here. There are definitely going to be some guest stars, too. These kids are slowly going to become part of the Robin legacy. It's really exciting for me to be at the ground floor of this thing that will hopefully change the way the Robin concept is thought about. At least that's what I tell myself. [Laughs]
Vertigo's "Suiciders" continues with #5 on June 24. "We Are... Robin" #1 launches from DC on June 24.