Scott Snyder On ‘Death Of The Family’: ‘It’s A Love Letter To Batman From The Joker’ [Interview]
After he began his tenure in DC’s New 52 by cutting off his own face and tacking it to a wall — hands down one of the weirdest things he’s done, which is saying something — it was pretty clear that when the Joker returned to the pages of Batman a year later, it was going to be a pretty big deal for readers. Now the time has come in “Death of the Family,“ a crossover event running through the appropriately nicknamed Batman family of titles. Anchored in Batman by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo, the story built around the simple idea of the Joker’s mission to thin out the “family” that he thinks has made the Dark Knight a weaker opponent.
The true mastermind behind the crime spree, however, is Batman writer Scott Snyder, who spoke to us about his take on the Joker, the villain’s relationships to Batman and his allies, and how Snyder built the story to serve as a twisted “love letter” from villain to hero.
ComicsAlliance: With the clean break that you got from the New 52 relaunch, was there ever a desire to completely reinvent the Joker when you brought him back?
Scott Snyder: It’s interesting because I feel like he’s a character that you do reinvent every time that you take him on as a new writer. There wasn’t really an impulse to change his origin, whatever that origin may be, or reinvent him physically in a huge way — at least on my part. But there was the idea that if we took him on, I wanted to have a really specific take on him that was different than what Grant [Morrison] had done with him or what Tony [Daniel] had done with him, or anybody else recently. There definitely is that impetus with a lot of these characters that if you’re going to take them on, you better have a way of doing it that’s going to be your own and different, or you might as well not touch them.
CA: One of the things that I noticed reading through “Death of the Family” so far is that he’s a very horror movie type of villain. He’s a very scary Joker.
SS: He is very scary.
CA: More than usual, which is quite a bit! Was that where you wanted to go with the Joker? Did you want to do a more horror-style take?
SS: Yeah. For me it’s less the idea of him being graphically horrific or explicitly horrific and more about being psychologically and emotionally horrific. I really got my first taste of writing him while I was working on Detective Comics, and I got to do an issue with him. In that issue, you can’t ever see his face. He’s restrained and he has a mask over his face, he can’t even move. So he doesn’t do anything like he does in our story now, he’s just kind of a voice in the dark, but writing him there was so exhilarating because he was so terrifying with the things he says to you.
I knew the take that I would have here was really that same kind of Joker unleashed. To me, what’s so scary about him isn’t even the physical things he would do — those are horrific too and there’s plenty of them coming in Batman — but it’s the fact that he seems to know your worst fears about yourself, and he knows how to convince you that they’re true. He can look at somebody like Harvey Bullock, and this is coming up in issue #15. He has a two-panel interaction with him, and the things he can say to Harvey can level Harvey and make him pause, this hardened cop, and not know what to do. Almost paralyze him with fear, but of himself. In that way, the Joker’s kind of the Devil’s tongue in our series. In that way, he’s very scary and horrific. He looks at Batman and says “I know what your worst fear is about yourself, and it’s true, and I’m here to deliver it and celebrate it with you.”
That fear is essentially in our story that deep down, what Batman wants is the Batman Family dead. It’s a really personal story. It’s probably the most personal story I’ve done so far at DC. As the father of young kids, the story comes from that kind of impulse where you wish for a moment that you could stop worrying about them and go back to the way it was before you had kids. Even though you love them to death and would never want to change the decisions you made to have them, you just wish you could have some refuge from two minutes from worrying about them. The Joker hears that. He says “I heard what you said, you want your family dead.” Batman’s like “No, I didn’t say that, I didn’t think that,” and the Joker says, “Yes you did, you just won’t admit it. I heard it in your head.”
He can read him that way, and in that way he’s deeply, deeply horrific and nightmarish. But I don’t think of him so much as a horror movie villain. He’s a force of primal horror.
CA: I’ve written before about how there’s a very strong family aspect right at the core of Batman, from his origin story to becoming this patriarch of this Batman Family. Obviously, the story’s called “Death of the Family,” so that seems to be the aspect you’re playing with. It’s really interesting that this is the source of weakness, that the family is Batman’s vulnerability.
SS: What the Joker does is he takes something you’re proud of about yourself and convinces you that your worst fears about it are true and that it’s a weakness. It’s the way he comes after every member of the Family in their respective books. He’ll come after Dick Grayson and essentially say, “Your problem is that you need people in your life. You’re weak because of that.” But that’s not really a weakness, that’s a strength of Dick Grayson: his sense of empathy and compassion and the friendships and relationships that he builds in his life. But the Joker’s very good at making you believe that that’s what makes you incapable of winning against him.
So what Joker’s saying here is, “You built this family and it will always cause you to lose. You can get ahead of me, you can catch me, but as long as I have Damian right here, or as long as I have Dick over here, I’ll always win. You’ll never beat me.” So it’s a weakness. But is it a weakness, or is it a sign of growth and maturity and strength? That’s the Joker’s game.
CA: The title being a reference to Batman: A Death in the Family stuck out as well along those same lines. We always sort of categorize that as “Batman’s greatest loss,” the death of the second Robin, Jason Todd. That’s the one time he loses.
CA: Was that something you wanted to get back? This sense of Batman, this unstoppable crimefighter, being in danger of losing through his family?
SS: Very much. Part of the idea is that what Joker is saying is that as long as you love, as long as you love people in the world more than you love being Batman — and being Batman at its core, to the Joker, is about fighting him; it’s about being the Bat-King of Gotham with your enemies, who are really your allies who keep you strong; as the King, as long as you pretend that, you will always be vulnerable — you will always be weak, and you will always lose.
I really wanted to have this story where I go into Bruce’s emotional trajectory more deeply than in any other story. The way that he feels, what he says to Alfred. This is the one that, for me, is really cutting him as close to the bone as I can, personally. It’s supposed to be emotionally and psychologically harrowing for him from the word go, and the fact that Alfred’s missing and we don’t know what’s happening to him really cuts Batman’s nerves raw for every moment that this story goes on.
CA: Going back and reading through the story so far, it seems to be a grand tour of the Joker’s Greatest Hits. You’ve got the references to Death in the Family in the title; the setup involved references to The Man Who Laughs with the chemical factory and the reservoir; there was the awesome, super-creepy scene with Harley re-enacting the Red Hood story. What was the reason behind revisiting all of those elements?
SS: I wanted it to be a story where the Joker is forcing Batman down a twisted version of memory lane, saying, “I know you loved these adventures we had together.” In some ways, I’ve tried to play this idea of the Joker as Peter Pan a little bit. Even when he says, “Hello, darling,” the Darling family is the family in Peter Pan. He says in issue #13, “I’m knocking at your window looking for my old shadow.”
Really, what the Joker’s trying to say to him is that it was better before. “You were thrilled by me. You won’t admit it, but you love that I came along to help you be stronger, to fuel your fantasy, and you do that for me, too. Together, we’re more of a family than any of these people.” In that way, the trip down memory lane was really meant as a kind of love letter to Batman from the Joker, even though those things were inverted. He’s not really acting them out in the same way that he did those crimes the first time, he has these horrible twists on them.
And in having the horrible twists, he’s saying something to Batman, which is, “You have forsaken your own kingdom. It’s been rotting from the inside for the past couple of years, and I am here to be a corrective to that.” The reason the crimes are inverted is to show that this is the place where rivers run backwards and two-headed beasts are born, and the whole city is wrong because Batman essentially can’t man up and be the King he’s supposed to be, and admit that the people sitting at his table are a false royal court, convincing him that he’s human and tender and soft when he’s not. “You’re supposed to be sharp and strong, and that’s why I fell in love with you in the first place.”
CA: You talked about the relationship between Joker and Batman, and between Joker and Dick Grayson. How do you see him fitting in with the other characters? What are the views he has of them?
SS: I think he views them all with incredible disdain in general, just thinking that they have caused his king to become fat, soft and weak — in his opinion. Individually, I think he’s been accumulating ammunition against them for the past year. He’s seen everything that’s happened in their stories from offstage. There’s nobody that’s safe in any of those books from him coming after them. Individually, he can eyeball you for about a minute and figure out what you’re afraid of about yourself, so he’s coming after them with a very strong notion of each of them being a certain thing.
For Dick Grayson, again, it’s that his compassion is his weakness. For Damian, he really believes that his devotion to Batman as a child is this incredible vulnerability and weakness, and that he pulls Batman down by convincing him that he really loves some child who follows him around like a son.
For Batgirl, what he finds amusing about her, which you’ll see in Batgirl, is essentially that she considers herself a survivor and takes pride in that in some way. Whether he thinks she’s Barbara Gordon or not, that’s part of the mystery and I don’t want to give it away, but what he comes after her openly about is that there’s something worse in the surviving of a terrible incident, because you get to the other side and it’s supposed to be better, and he’s going to teach her how that’s so untrue.
Jason, of course, he obviously has a very, very personal history with. And Tim as well. He comes after them in a very intimate way. The idea is that he’s looked at them and found them wanting, and he has a very specific take on them that cuts to the heart of what they’re afraid of about themselves. The kind of challenges he’s going to throw their way and the kind of nightmares he’s going to put them through really are meant to speak to those fears immediately.
CA: What about Bruce Wayne?
SS: Well, Bruce Wayne is a whole other thing. It depends on what you believe. If you believe the Joker knows who they are and you believe that he’s coming after them because he’s figured it out, then he has very specific feelings about Bruce Wayne. On the other hand, if you believe Bruce, who says Joker can’t have figured it out, or that he won’t, or that he hasn’t figured it out for reasons that he’s still keeping close to his chest in some way, then you’d assume he has no feelings about Bruce Wayne, or very small feelings.
I’d say you have to wait and see with that one.
Batman #14 preview
Batman #13-14 are on sale now in comics shops and digitally from ComiXology, where you can also catch up on all of Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s previous issues. Batman #15 goes on sale December 12.