Jon Lewis is possibly the most famous comics creator superhero comic fans have never heard of.
His extremely indie "True Swamp" comics were picked by none less than "Time" magazine as one of the top comics of 2000. And when DC Comics tapped him as the new writer of the "Robin" monthly, it was easily the most mainstream work he'd taken on.
"Oh yes, by far. But I'm not thinking about it in terms of writing 'mainstream stories.' I'm just thinking about it in terms of writing good stories. The only convention to obey is that there needs to be a generous amount of adventure and strangeness and fantastical elements, but my natural inclination runs in that direction anyway. I love using the familiar urban here-and-now and people's everyday emotional lives as a frame for magical or mysterious or outlandish events. I'm not even really thinking of it as a superhero comic, since I see superpowers as just a form of magic, in terms of how they work in the storytelling frame, and to me magic in storytelling is an extension of the characters' personalities or feelings-- some part of them or some part of their past is so huge or intense that it manifests itself in this strange, visible, physical way. Alternately, magic can be an extension of the non-living too -- a place or situation so significant that it intrudes into the realm of the living and moving, as if it has a mind of its own. Of course, Robin himself doesn't have any powers, nor does Spoiler, and they're the two heroes of the book. But what I was just talking about applies very much to the people and situations they'll be getting mixed up in. Actually, one of the things that made me wanna write Robin is the fact that he's such an undistorted character. He's pursuing a really weird course in life, yes, but no weirder than if a teenager managed to become an astronaut through sheer geeky enthusiasm and dedication. He got into his dream job by being outrageously determined and extremely smart. Of course, he's been doing it for a few years now, and he's trying to look at the whole thing more objectively-- is this definitely the right path for him? Just because he grew up obsessed with superheroes, does that mean this is the direction his whole life should take? You see this sometimes in child prodigy types, you know, where somewhere in their teens they have kind of a mid-life career crisis - 'do I really want to be an extraordinary person?' Anyway, it's great that the character of Tim Drake is actually sane. He doesn't have some obsession that sets him apart from all mankind, he just has issues like you or I. His mom died horribly, and he's dealt with it the way most people in real life would – it haunts him, he'll never totally get over it, but he didn't let it drive him mad or become the focal force in his life. He's moved on as much as he can. Tim's basic sanity and level-headedness make him a wonderful protagonist through whom to encounter insane situations, you know? If he thinks something ain't right, something probably ain't right."
Plenty of creators who were never singled out by an internationally known news magazine turn their noses up at doing superhero books, but not Lewis.
"That's kind of a 'coolness' thing, isn't it? If we let like some of the things that are also liked by people whom we see as stupid or uncool, then we can no longer categorically set ourselves apart from those people. We might be like them! It's an ego-defense mechanism and it's what being a hipster is all about. Believe me, I've been there, not only where comics are concerned, but also music, books, and movies. I'm 31 now, and at this point I really don't give a shit whether I'm cool or not. Sure, I don't like most superhero comics. I don't like most alternative comics either. Good storytelling is not common, but when it does arrive it can arrive in anyshape, be it a comic about a depressed laundryworker or a comic about a halfhuman monster hunter. Italo Calvino is one of my very favorite writers, but so is Jack Vance, and I wouldn't give up either one without a fight. But, as I said above, because of the nature of this particular character and his supporting cast, I don't necessarily consider 'Robin' a superhero comic. For me, it's an urban fantasy/mystery/horror/adventure comic about a hyperresponsible yet terminally inquisitive, intelligent yet confused, physically adept 16 year old. While I do have a list of odd old villains I'd like to play with if they haven't already been killed, overhauled, or erased, I'll be bringing in other costumed superheroes very, very seldom. I believe that when you get more than a couple of 'em in the frame at the same time they start to lose their significance, they become kind of trivial. That's my personal feeling, anyway. One very obvious exception will be issue 101. When I came on board, that issue was already slated as being part of a crossover with that month's issues of Impulse, Young Justice, and Superboy. I had an outline of plot-points to cover in my issue with respect to that. However the whole crossover hinges on the idea of sudden shifts into alternate timelines, so that made it easy to spend the first half of #101 continuing my own plotline from where #100 leaves off,then suddenly on page 15 getting hit with one of these timeline shifts, and spending the rest of the issue in the crossover storyline. Of course, by the beginning of 'Robin' #102, the proper timeline has been restored, so with a straight face we resume our regularly-scheduled plotline on the first page of #102, as if we've just turned page 14 of the previous issue. Does that make sense? This arrangement allowed me to just shift into the spirit of the crossover and have fun, without worrying about how to fit it plausibly into the story I had in progress, which is totally different in mood and scale. So anyway, #100 is Chuck Dixon for the first half of the issue and me for the second half; then #101 is partially a collaboration with the folks who are putting together the Impulse/Superboy/Young Justice crossover; but then in #102 it's just my hand on that tiller!"
Lewis already has an existing audience, of course, but it's anyone's guess if "True Swamp" readers will be putting down their dollars for "Robin" every month.
"I have no idea. I hope so. I do suspect that a lot of the people who end up coming onto the book as regular readers during my tenure will be people who'd probably enjoy my previous work as well, whether or not they've ever heard of it. I guess the visuals might be an impediment – my own art style is unpolished by anyone's standards, though god knows I've tried. I have achieved a pretty good level of clarity and expressiveness in my artwork, at least, even if my execution's primitive. As for the visuals on 'Robin,' Pete Woods is staying on the book, and for that I'm grateful. I really like the way he draws, and I like the way he tells a story. Art-as-storytelling is a big priority with him, so I'm really enjoying working with him. We also have a lot of similar ideas about general directions in which to take the book, as does our editor, Matt Idelson. So far it's great fun and quite satisfying."
While Tim Drake is the third Robin, he's a very traditional part of a franchise that goes back decades, and has the same sort of enduring appeal that the first Robin, Dick Grayson, also featured:
"The fact that he's a normal person, putting himself in abnormal situations and doing the best he can. He's easy to identify with. You know, you don't actually identify with Batman, or if you do, I urge you to seek help. Also, Tim changes over time. I mean, he's a teenager – you could never get away with having a teenage character in stasis, the same person year after year, the way you can with older characters. Mind you, 'comics time' is slower than 'real time,' and even though Tim became Robin in a comic published in the late '80s, he's only been doing this in the story for three years or so. But he does change, and he's not sure he's right about everything either, which I find appealing. I think 'Robin' is consistent with the rest of the titles in the 'Bat Group,' in that it takes place in a pretty realistic world, recognizably the one we live in, and the characters are portrayed as humanly as possible. But 'Robin' also sticks out from the other Bat-titles somehow -- it's less OVERTLY serious (but covertly, as serious as I can make it) and it has a lot more air and light in it. I see it as a book where deep, honest, dark or disturbing things can be told in a charming, funny way that doesn't detract from their weight, and maybe increases their mass."
Once one adds in the miniseries that preceded it, the "Robin" series has had one writer over the course of well over 100 issues. Look for Lewis to change tone and content as compared to outgoing writer Chuck Dixon, as well as stretching his storytelling skills beyond what readers have seen of him in comics.
"Yes and yes. My stories will be totally different from Chuck's, not because I have some predetermined 'take' on the character, but simply because Chuck and I are two totally different people. We grew up in different places and in different generations, I'm sure our lives have been very different, we probably have different views of human nature, and find totally different things interesting as writers. We do have in common the idea that whatever a story's intent, it should be told with charm and humor, and that the characters have to be laws unto themselves – actual people and not just our pawns. But yeah, there'll be a big difference, of course! My mandate from my editors is to write this book from the heart, and that's what I'm doing. Then, yes, it will also be different from my previous work, or at least my previous PUBLISHED work. I've made many stabs, hundreds of pages' worth of attempts, at long, involved stories set in contemporary cities, involving normal people, with large elements of the magical and fantastical and adventurous. There was a graphic novel in '95 or so that I think I made four or five different versions of, some getting as far as forty-odd pages of penciled art, finally just giving up on it. I was just never able to fit my own art style, and the glacial pace at which I finish pages, to that kind of setting and mood. Now I've got Pete. It's gonna be great. I've been wanting to do these kind of stories for ages."
In addition to speaking in broad strokes, Lewis was also willing to give a hint at what readers can expect to see in coming issues.
"The Drakes, Tim included, are going to be living right in the heart of Gotham. You'll see why in the last couple of issues of Chuck's run. The conceit of my first storyline is that there's a big area of wreckage from the terrible earthquake not far from the Drakes' building. In story time, the mega-earthquake storyline took place not quite two years ago, and huge areas of Gotham were laid waste, so I figure there's bound to still be areas they just haven't gotten to yet in the rebuilding process. This patch of ruins is almost like a weird kind of park – the things people are doing back in the ruins are a lot like the things they do back in the woods of a big city park. Robin's back in there, just routinely checking it out, really, while inwardly he's in turmoil, trying to process the really awful stuff that's been happening between he and Batman and their circle of friends. This stuff is forcing him into some uncomfortable questions. While he's wandering the ruins trying to cope with this problem mentally, he ends up being forced to cope with it physically, in a very direct and urgent way. That's all I'll say. In my second issue, that leads to the discovery of an odd kind of unregulated social scene going on amongst the ruins, in which we find a character you might recognize from mid-1980's-era Batman stories. Matt mentioned her to me as a possible element for our first few issues - they'd been wanting to use her somehow for awhile, but couldn't figure out how to do it. I went and read up on her and thought, 'man, what an odd, ridiculous, interesting character!' She's one of the many characters who may or may not have been retroactively erased from the continuity when they did Crisis On Infinite Earths and all that. I don't think anyone's certain about that. So, she's based on the '80s character, but I reconceived some things about her and we're basically playing it like she's never appeared before. She has a power that's constantly at work, but no one knows it exists, including her. A really creepy situation develops with her, Tim and Steph. Vague enough for ya?"
Of course, all this Bat-goodness is fine and dandy, but what about his independent work – the stuff that got him noticed by Time magazine, after all?
"I'm trying to figure out how both things fit together. In the last two years, I've put out two giant-size issues of True Swamp, working with this pretty experimental approach to the distribution of panels on the page, and employing a very broad, atmospheric story pacing. The problem is, it takes me months and months of drawing every day to finish one of those. I'm trying to figure out if I can get away with continuing the story in a different format, maybe bite-size scenes with a more conventional page structure, each advancing one strand of the story. The first True Swamp series added up to a hundred-some pages of story, then the two issues in the second series have added up to another hundred-some pages. I'm wondering if I should call 'Third Act!' and continue with smaller, less crazily-constructed units of story that I could complete between Robin scripts. The True Swamp story has a whole, whole lot of stuff left to cover, stuff I'd like to get to this century. It'll probably be awhile, though, before I really know how much of the month each Robin script will take. One great thing is that this is also Pete Woods' only monthly book, which means he and I will be able to lavish a lot of time on each issue, discuss it back and forth, and polish it up nicely. I'm gonna try to make every issue not only satisfying on the first read, but satisfying in a different way on the second read. Like one of those suckers that changes color."