Though he had his superhero breakthrough as one of the head writers for the classic "Batman: The Animated Series," Paul Dini has over the years turned himself into one of the biggest contributors on the comics side of the DC Entertainment coin with a special focus on the Bat Universe over the past few years. From his "One Year Later" run of solo stories in "Detective Comics" to his current series "Batman: Streets of Gotham" and "Gotham City Sirens," Dini has put the extended cast of the Dark Knight's world front and center.
So this week, CBR News shines its regular interview column THE BAT SIGNAL on the writer as he prepares two new storylines in his ongoing Bat-series. On tap for June and July is a return to the villainous Hush in a major way with July's "Streets of Gotham" #14 heralding a sequel arc to Dini's "Heart of Hush" epic. And on the ladies side of town, Poison Ivy takes a summer spotlight in "Gotham City Sirens" with a new job at STAR Labs. Dini discusses all of this below as well as what makes good Bat-villains tick, why his books will carry on after the return of Bruce Wayne and how he collaborates on writing chores with "Streets" art team Dustin Nguyen and Derek Fridolfs.
CBR News: Paul, I think when the Bat books relaunched after "Battle For The Cowl," some people thought that the books would be operated on a limited basis or some kind of time clock while Bruce Wayne was still out of the picture, but both "Streets" and "Sirens" have grown a bit to be the kind of franchise that can exist no matter who's wearing the cowl. How have things changed for each title over their first year?
Paul Dini: Well, I'm happy that the books have gotten a good response. I never really thought of them existing on a clock where we were passing time until the Bruce Wayne story wrapped up, but you do kind of look at them with an eye where you go, "Let's treat these as an ongoing venue." In "Streets" we take a look at the bottom of the barrel criminal element like we're doing now with the carpenter. I try to make them funny or interesting or compelling or just try and broaden Batman's world a bit. We tell stories about the victims of crime or people whose lives have been affected by Batman. I think Batman's world is so big that it spills out over all of Gotham City. I'm happy to see we've pulled that off and will hopefully continue to do that for a while.
And with "Sirens," they're three interesting characters. What drives them? What bonds them together? Where do they have their breaking points with each other and why do they like and appreciate each other? I think they're three fun, compelling characters, and it's nice to see what their lives are like when they're not running around causing trouble or they have to band together to solve a problem.
Reinventing Batvillains is something that you've been doing as far back as "Batman: TAS" and on through your "Detective" run. What is it about digging into those characters and finding what make them tick that's so interesting for you?
I guess that these characters can go a lot of different directions. That's not just an area limited to Batman. We always go back to Batman and see what makes his character tick, but what is it about the character in his world that keeps them there? What keeps them connected to Gotham? What keeps them connected to their heroic or villainous identities? Why don't they just move on? That's what these books explore. Once you have an identity in the Batman Universe, it transforms you. You've got this ongoing persona, and it's fun to get into that and work with it -Â to shine the solo spotlight on it.
That's what's happened in "Sirens." Taking the recent iteration of Catwoman from her own book and other versions of the character that have been told, she's a very rich character. You can tell a story about any time in her history or any of her family connections and get a good story out of that. Ivy's a little lesser known, so you're dealing more with her as a villain who doesn't care about other things. She doesn't care much about other people, so the trick is to put her in a situation where she does care about somebody else or where other people have to stand against her and deal with her. She's a very powerful character and a very motivated character, but at the same time she doesn't care who she hurts around her, and that could even extend to her temporary friends and allies. She's always the wildcard, much more than Harley. Harley is the innocent of the group. She likes hanging out with the others for the thrill of it and has kind of moved off from hanging around and swooning over the Joker. She's trying to find herself, and it's a good balance between the three of them. You've got the brains with Catwoman, the power with Ivy and the heart with Harley.
Speaking of hearts, both of these books seemed to spin out of "Heart of Hush" where you reinvented Tommy Elliot to a certain extent. He was always a mystery character who was out for revenge in a very basic way, but you've twisted those motivations some. Did you feel there was more to be mined there?
I was trying to build on the clues and hints that Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee had left in the original "Hush" book and go off in a new direction. Hush is a guy who's very fixated on Bruce Wayne. Where does that come from? Why would you gravitate towards somebody so much? Why would there be so much admiration and hatred for somebody unless it came from deep within the character? By building on what I perceived to be those hints left behind, what I came upon was a guy who had always had an intense jealousy of Bruce Wayne. Maybe he'd been compared negatively to Bruce by his parents so much that it became an obsession. He was never allowed to be who he was, so he became a darker, mirror version of Bruce and finally decided to just become Bruce and destroy everything he'd created. That's a good basis for a story.
Since "Streets" started with this idea that he'd stand in for Bruce and now Bruce is coming back, how will all these character collide in your "Heart of Hush" sequel starting in July's issue #14? Will this take the return from Tommy's point of view? From Dick's?
That story is going to be told from everybody's point of view, and I don't think that everybody's going to have the whole story except the reader. What I'm doing now returning to Hush is bringing his tenure as Bruce Wayne to a close but changing it in a certain way. He started out very bold and telling the Bat-Family, "Here I am as Bruce Wayne. I'm out spending his money, and you can't do anything against me because you can't explain what happened to Bruce, can you?" Now it's like a variation on that chess game he was playing with Damian in the first issue of "Streets." They say, "We're going to move our various pawns into play like members of the Justice League and the Outsiders and other Batman allies who know who you are and what you want to do but who also want to protect the sanctity of Batman's identity. We're going to keep you in check."
For this new Hush story, he's saying, "I've put myself in a box. I'm caged in. I've got Bruce Wayne's name and some of his money, but I'm being controlled by these guys - each one of whom has a lot more power than I can muster. But there's got to be a way out of here? In the time I have left, how do I trump what Wayne's done, and how do I bring him down?" So that story is about Hush's determination to get out of the box he's been placed into and how to revenge himself on the Bat-Family and their allies and ruin Bruce's name. At the same time, the story exists in flashback because it hearkens back to events far in the past before Tommy or Bruce was born. It involves a variety of people and ideas that have a resonance in the present day. Like with "Heart of Hush," you'll see a story that takes place in the present and the past - probably a great deal of it in the past. I'm working out the issues now, and there are a lot of surprises and revelations and seeds planted for the finale, which will probably come early in the winter toward November or December.
It seems that with Dustin's work going from superhero stuff to a kind of sepia-toned flashback look on the covers, this is going to cover a lot of genre grounds as well.
Right. Some of the story will be from the point of the view of the Outsiders, some from the point of view of Justice Leaguers, some from the point of view of characters we haven't met yet. Like I said, there are very few people besides the readers who will see it all, and it's going to give readers an insight into characters that they themselves may not have. The readers will go, "Oh ho! I've got a window into a character no one else has." I think that'll be cool.
But before that, you've got the current story to wrap where Dustin and Dereck have been doing some of the writing themselves. How did that story get built?
What happened was that I had an idea for a two-part story about the Carpenter that was basically "Here's this character who's a really rotten villain yet is always hired to renovate old warehouses in Gotham into living spaces." I thought that was something that fills a need on the basement level of the Gotham criminal echelons. Who services people like Joker and the Riddler? They can't do it themselves. The Joker's a big idea guy, he needs to farm this out to other people whether it's flunkies or Harley or whoever. That's where the Broker and the Carpenter came from. The Carpenter was like a Mad Hatter, Tweedle Dee/Tweedle Dum flunky who was absolutely no good in a fight but was great with a toolbelt. I introduced her in "Sirens," and I came up with the idea of a story where she has to build the ultimate set of deathtraps for another villain but he ultimately says, "I'm trapping you in there because while I'm going for Batman, but at the same time dead women tell no tales." It's sort of like how you hear about the people that built the pyramids being locked up in them so they could never build a pyramid for anyone else. The Carpenter knows that she's on the guy's deathlist, but she's not 100% sure they know that she knows. "They're asking me to design my own deathtrap here...how do I get out of it while they're watching me?"
I wrote a pretty detailed two-issue outline and gave it to Dustin and Derek, and they scripted it. Derek did a lot of the scripting. He added the Carpenter's funny dialogue and stuff. So when I saw the finished scripts, I thought it worked out really well.
In "Sirens," the next big storyline focuses on Ivy who should be one of the big super genius characters of the Bat Universe though we rarely see her that way. Did you want to prove something about the character in taking her to STAR Labs coming up?
With Ivy, she's the most powerful one of them, but what is she doing? She's got no place to be, and she doesn't really need to be a criminal. We established in the early issues that she doesn't need money because she's above the material things of the world. To her, it's like, "If I need money, I can charm anything out of anybody. The world is my oyster. If I need a place to stay, I can hypnotize the Riddler. And if we're going to do this girl empowerment thing, fine. Until somebody pisses me off, I'm staying there." And that's fun, but it doesn't give her any forward momentum as a character. So I've been working over the past few months to build on the conflict in her head of "I love the green world, but I'm also a product of the human world, and I've got to bring those two sides together. I can't just go to the jungle because my restlessness will drive me back to the city." And she is intelligent. She's probably one of the smartest people in the DC Universe when it comes to Botany and Chemistry, so it makes sense to not have her stick around the townhouse for too long. She can control her appearance a bit, so why not send her to STAR Labs? She can play with stuff for free, and she's not harming anybody. She should be allowed to do anything. She hypnotizes whoever she has to to get security clearance so she's still a villain, and it gives me a chance to play with how ruthless people can be in a corporate environment where she just fires people because "You're not my people, so you're all redundant. Get out." It shows her as a villain on two levels. And yet, there is good in a character like that. She's smart and if properly motivated, she can work towards the general good. And there are some surprises as far as her role at STAR Labs is concerned. There are surprises coming for her role there - not totally evil, but someone who plays by no rules but her own.
Paul, looking towards the future it feels like you could come up with stories for some of these characters for 50 years or so.
I don't know about that, but it is fun to play with them for a while. I have to take breaks because of my workload on TV and "Zatanna" and elsewhere, but hopefully I can continue to keep these going and show folks some surprises.
But once Bruce Wayne is back, we know some things will have to change for the Batman world. Is there any plans to change too much about these books in the near future?
No. I think "Streets" will work very well with Tommy and what current members of the DCU will play into it. As far as Batman, whoever he is there will be a place for him in that story. With "Sirens," I wanted to expand out what those characters are so they can exist without Batman or with just very tangential links to him if need be, so I don't see that it needs to rely on what happens in the core Batman books this month in order to proceed.