THE BAT SIGNAL: Calloway Redefines "Gotham City Sirens"

DC Comics' three-part April crossover "Judgment on Gotham" treated readers to a Batman story of epic proportions. Playing out across the pages of "Red Robin," continuing in "Gotham City Sirens" and ending in "Batman," the crossover saw Azrael blazing a path of destruction through Gotham on orders from God (in reality, Ra's al Ghul). Testing Selina Kyle, Tim Drake and Dick Grayson by uncovering their worst mistakes and most painful secrets, writer David Hine orchestrated the event and was responsible for the third and final part in "Batman" #709 with artist Guillem March. The creative teams behind "Gotham City Sirens" (writer Peter Calloway and artist Andres Guinaldo) and "Red Robin" (writer Fabian Nicieza and artist Freddie Williams II) handled the crossover in their respective books.

Though the events of "Judgment" are done, for "Gotham City Sirens" the reverberations of Catwoman's actions will continue to echo through upcoming issues. As fans saw during the crossover, Selina abandoned Poison Ivy in the middle of her attempt to stop Harley from breaking into Arkham Asylum, a plot point in the book's current "Hell Hath No Fury" arc. Starting in issue #23, under the threat of a Harley/Joker team-up, the three women will have to reassess their relationship -- and the result may spell the end of the Sirens.

In response to these events, "Gotham City Sirens" writer Peter Calloway swooped in to THE BAT SIGNAL to give CBR the low-down on the series' direction after "Judgment," the Joker's true feelings toward Harley Quinn and the challenges of writing Gotham's most famous women.

CBR News: In your issue of the three-part "Judgment on Gotham" crossover we saw Selina abandon Ivy and the Harley rescue attempt in order to chase down Azrael. Now that it's over, how will the events of that crossover affect "Gotham City Sirens?"

Peter Calloway: Part of the challenge of working on a crossover is how you incorporate it into the book. Especially with this one which was only concerning Selina. When I spoke to David Hine about what he had envisioned for the crossover, it was clear this was going to be about Selina and not Harley or Poison Ivy. So there was some engineering to set her off by herself so she could go do this story that is very personal to her. It was important to me that it was just Selina as this involved her sister. It will affect in the next two issues; the strings are being pulled apart, all the things that tied them together at the very beginning. I mean, they came together when Batman was gone and now he's back and so is the Joker. I think those are two very important things happening that can't be ignored in the larger universe. And that will resonate through the next few issues of the crossover.

In our last interview with you, you said you wanted to really work on reasons why these three women stick together. Are you using the end of the crossover and the current "Hell Hath No Fury" arc as a way to redefine the character's relationships with each other?

Yes, I'll definitely say that is the goal. When I started to write the book, like I said before, it's always been a challenge. The [Sirens] needed, at least in my own view, a different dynamic and I felt the way to do this was to pull them apart -- not necessarily all the way apart, but enough apart so that they can reassess and come into it with a cleaner head. When it first started -- and this not a criticism at all on what Paul did, in fact I think it's a compliment -- [Paul] made the beginning very messy between the three of them. It's wonderful and great, but it is messy and I think it's something that needed to be addressed. I think a lot of fans and readers felt that way as well, so that is the purpose of all of this.

Are you also using this point and time to take the book in a new direction, to make it your own and move it further away from what Dini was originally doing?

Its funny, I'm such a huge fan of his! I could not be more of a Dini fan, I think he's such an amazing writer and I love his work, but I don't have his voice. I think any writer feels this way. Your voice is your own, and to not be true to it, you end up with something that [is] a compromise on all aspects, a product that no one is happy with. To say that I want to make it my own book -- I would love for that to be the case but I don't feel comfortable saying that! [Laughs] These characters have such a history and I'm such a fan of all of them. I remain a fan of these three women. What I love about them too, which is really cool with the idea of the book, is that they are so fiercely independent and they are so different and their morality is so checkered. I think that makes them all really interesting. It's the challenge of the book to try and make them seem like they would come together and be coherent. It's always intrinsically interesting to me, and I hope it is to readers as well. Hopefully we will come up with a solution that everyone will like.

Since you are such a big fan of Paul Dini, how do you approach writing his most famous creation, Harley Quinn? Especially in your current Harley-centric "Hell Hath No Fury" arc?

You know, reading the first set of issues that Dini did and when Harley had her own book, when she was introduced and first came in from the animated series in that first issue she manipulated Batman. I always thought that was the core of her ability. That is what she's good at and it comes from her therapy background. It was always something I wished as a fan they concentrated more on. So [on "Gotham City Sirens"] I got the opportunity to really show what makes Harley Quinn a villain and why she is so good at what she does -- and in my view, the Joker is in love with Harley. He's in love with himself, but he's in love with her too, and maybe he's in love with her only because he sees her as an extension of himself. He's obviously a narcissist, but I think there has to be a mutual respect thing there. There has to be something he sees in her, and I think her ability to manipulate people is an important part of her character. So that's something I thought could be showcased here as she breaks into Arkham and she's manipulating people, using her knowledge. She doesn't have Poison Ivy's supernatural abilities and she's not as good of a fighter as Selina is, or as sneaky or stealthy. What she has is manipulation. She has these mental games she's good at playing. Actually, not to give too much away but coming up there's a great manipulation in issue #24. I think that's at the core of her ability.

It certainly was impressive that she was able to break into famous, heavily guarded Arkham Asylum with only a flower, a rusty nail and a handful of marbles. How did using trump cards to get into Arkham come to mind?

I was looking for a way to do that and ground it physically. I'm a big Warren Ellis fan and there's a great issue of "Planetary" where they find these trophies of analogs for Wonder Woman, Superman, Green Lantern, etc. As I do sometimes when I try to find inspiration, I flip through all the comics I have and the ones I really love, and that stuck out to me and struck a chord. Somewhere in the back of my brain a few weeks later I realized, 'Oh! It's objects!' I loved the idea that Harley has these and the ability to know these things. It was fun to write but it was terrifically hard. That was probably the hardest issue of "Gotham City Sirens" I've written, in terms of breaking in and forcing that much story into such a short period of time. And that was pretty soon after DC cut the other two pages out, so that made it even tougher.

Since DC's move to cut their books down to 20 pages is such a recent change, do you feel already that missing those two pages deeply affects your story?

It does, but it's a good thing! I think there are probably a lot of people who lament it, but in terms of storytelling I think it forces the writer to really focus in on what is actually important. A lot of times, and I'm as guilty of this as anyone, we have panels and pages between characters that are in there just because we like it and we think it's interesting, when in the larger scheme of things it doesn't really mean anything. I come from TV writing and that is all about limits. I think you see it with directors of movies; often their best work is when they are restrained by budgetary constrictions, or when they are not well known and can't afford the set pieces, and they are forced to really focus on what's important and what they can accomplish with the limited resources they have. There's a bajillion examples of that but when people get to do whatever they want -- which is what every creative person aspires to do! -- generally they turn out something that's not bad, but personal to them and it ends up not resonating the way their early stuff did.

So the long-winded way to answer your question is: I think it's a good thing. If you have a story that you sketch out for 22 pages and you can't get it down to 20 pages then you need to reexamine the process.

Talking about condensing stories, in issues #20 and #21, you literally condensed the secondary characters backstories into the shape of the trump cards Harley uses on them. Is that something you talked about with artist Andres Guinaldo beforehand?

Not too much. Andres and I -- by the way I love him, I think he's fantastic! It's hard as he doesn't speak that much English; it goes through a translator so there's not much back and forth. Sometimes we do [talk] when he has questions or doesn't understand, but most of the time he gets it. He's a pro! I thought it was a tall order what I was asking. I was cramming; some of those double-page spreads have like seventeen panels in them! That was what was so hard about the script, getting those stories condensed that small. That's all I had. I had sketched it out, I had outlined the issue and I only had those pages to tell those stories. A lot of times that meant simplifying back stories. I had much more complicated back stories for all these things and more I wanted to tell, but I couldn't and I don't think the issue suffers for that. I think it's probably better. But it was very hard, and Andres did an amazing job pulling it off.

There have been a couple of different artists filling in since you started. Is Andres now the permanent "Gotham City Sirens" artist?

Yes, as far as I understand he is. We had Jeremy Haun for issue #18, and since #19 through #24 I know [Andres] is doing them and I think he's staying on after that. He's fast too, and the pages come out great. What more could you ask for in an artist?

You also have Guillem March doing cover art for "Sirens," which has gotten a lot of attention from fans and reviewers. How much influence do you have over what Guillem does on the covers? Do you talk about it beforehand?

When I do solicitations my editors ask for cover ideas. For #22 for example, I came up with a bunch of different things and came up with the idea of having Selina with an angel wing and a devil wing. That was all that I had -- in my head I was like, oh she's standing and has two wings! [Laughs] But what he did on this cover is just amazing! Having her on her knees and sort of bloody, it's really unbelievable. For #20, the huge Joker face he did is unbelievable. On #20 I told him this was where Harley is going after Joker, and the two girls are going to try and stop her, so maybe they try to restrain her some way? And that's what he comes up with. He's got this cover thing down, he is brilliant. Then I saw his interiors for Batman #709 and it's just amazing. I know sometimes, especially early on in "Sirens," people weren't happy with it, but I don't know why that would be because he's unbelievable! I'm a big fan of his as well. DC has great artists.

Now you said that these next issues after the crossover will focus on pulling apart the Sirens. How would you sum up their relationships before this pulling apart process?

Very tense. This is what I was talking about with what Paul Dini did in those first issues which was sort of a master stroke: he complicated that cliffhanger ending of the first issue with Poison Ivy trying to get Batman's identity out of Selina, which I think is the core conflict to these three and something that can never fully go away. Harley has been the glue that kept Selina and Ivy from killing each other. Indirectly her influence has helped them get along or at least co-exist. One of the reasons I had her break into Arkham was to have her allegiance change so that glue that bound them before, even though it was really loose, is being really stretched. Again, another really long-winded way of saying very tense!

You've described Ivy and Harley as being a Thelma and Louise pair. But after Harley's recent actions, what does Ivy get out of this relationship?

That's a fantastic question, and that precise issue is going to be a big part of issue #24, so I don't want to give away too much. So I'm going to dodge your question by saying the answer to that is in #24.

Batman is also showing up in #24. Is this Bruce Wayne Batman?

It is indeed!

Will that be a big point of contention between the Sirens when you have Harley and her man go against Selina and her man?

That is exactly what's on deck, and is something I've always wanted to see. It's an interesting struggle. I mean you have Batman and his nemesis and two women that they both love and love them. I think that's fertile ground to play in.

What is drawing Selina back in these next issues? Is it because she is good and these are her friends?

More or less. Selina is so complicated. She's both incredibly loyal and incredibly independent. She has her own moral code that strangely enough doesn't stray too far from Batman's in a lot of ways. I mean yes, she lifts rich people of their jewelry, but she's essentially a force for good if you boil it down. Especially with everything she helped with in "Batman Inc." But it's complicated; it's complicated with their affair and that [Batman] has a son by another woman who is now Robin, all of that is the soapier aspects of the comic. Again, that's not a criticism, I think it's great.

In the current arc all of the Sirens have basically betrayed each other at this point. Moving forward, will the book lean in a darker direction as they try to redefine their relationship together?

I think there will be a time in which that's true, [but] if that is going to be true they'll have to come to some sort of arrangement, almost like they are in business together. That makes sense to me, and I have a reason that would all work.

And that's if they are able to come back together, which is going to remain a question mark. Talking to [editors] Mike Marts and Harvey Richards about this, it was important to all of us to pull them apart and have that be a question mark of where to go from there.

Touching on the characters popping in the next few issues, it's probably got to be a dream come true to write the Joker in "Gotham City Sirens!"

Oh man, yeah! It's the greatest! I've said this before but Gotham City in general is my favorite setting in all of media. I love it to death and have since I was a little boy and picked up Batman comics. It's a total dream come true and that's a mixed bag because it's great but it's terrifying and intimidating to write characters you've known and loved for so long. Especially with someone like the Joker. Some writers skew more psychopathic, others more humorous. I love both versions of the Joker so picking one and sticking with that is a scary, intimidating sort of thing. But the one I went with in issue #23 is the chaotic Joker who is probably less humorous in a lot of ways and sort of dark and strategic. He's the crazy lover of chaos.

With the Azrael crossover we had Selina's sister Maggie showing up again. To use Harley's terminology, is Maggie Selina's trump card? Is Maggie Selina's Joker?

You know I hadn't thought about it like that, but there are similarities between them. Selina is, for all of her bravado and independence, very loyal. She's very capable of love. That's not true of a lot of villains. I think that's why she has this great relationship with Batman and why her sister will always be, to use the expression of the Harley arc, her trump card. She'll always be the thing that makes [Selina] pause and can sort of manipulate her. There are definitely similarities between the Joker and Batman and Maggie and Selina. Ultimately the idea of it, when I was talking to David and Fabian Nicieza about this crossover, it's the Abraham and Isaac story. To have to make that choice of sacrificing your blood is a huge one, and something we all found interesting.

Is there a trump card for Ivy?

There is and it's something that we explore in issue #24. It's one of those things that is right there -- it's not obvious but it's right there in front of us. It is something that is intrinsic to her character. Unlike Selina, her loyalty is to two things: plants and Harley. And the purpose of this arc is to tear that apart and reexamine that.

To circle back to the beginning, you described their relationship at the start of the comic as tense. How would you sum up their relationship now moving out of the three-part-crossover?

Hostile. I guess to make the analogy, if this was schoolyard politics, the first stage would be the girls whispering behind each other's backs, and now its this overt war that goes on afterwards. Or to think about it another way, it was all the reconnaissance and the espionage done between two countries before war, and this is the actual commencement of the hostilities.

To end this, we saw that you have been on the CBR forums chatting with the fans -- anything you want to say directly to them here?

It's an exercise in self-humility to go on and see what people are saying about it! [Laughs] It's an important part of my process [and] it is cool to talk to the fans and to the people who care about these characters as much as I do. I was a fan first! It's hard being in this position because very early on I discovered as a writer you can't give the fans everything that they want. It would be unsatisfying.

But to answer your question: Hi fans! It's been great, and I love reading what people say, even the bad stuff. There are some really reasonable critiques, and people make good points. This is all part of the process of becoming a better a writer and trying to do better, which is a life-long process. It's invaluable, and it's an invaluable community.

"Gotham City Sirens" #23 hits stores May 25.

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