Batman Writer Scott Snyder On ‘Zero Year: Secret City’: The Comics Alliance Interview, Part Two
Batman’s origin has been told many times before, but I think it’s fair to say that it’s never been done quite like Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo‘s “Zero Year.” They’re telling the story of what they call a “punk rock Batman,” a younger Bruce Wayne who returns to Gotham to challenge a city that’s already being crushed under the weight of a new kind of crime, and they’re packing everything they possibly can into it. So much, in fact, that the twelve-issue epic has been divided into three distinct arcs, and with “Secret City” ending last month, we’re talking to Snyder in a series of interviews, going in-depth to discuss what these first four issues mean for Batman, his world, and Snyder personally.
Today, after discussing the story in general terms in part one, we get into the specifics of the first arc: The villains, what they represent, the role of the Wayne Family in shaping Snyder and Capullo’s take, and Bruce Wayne’s development as the Batman of a new kind of city full of new kinds of fears — and how Batman’s greatest enemy is an empty, meaningless life.
ComicsAlliance: The very first time we see Batman in this new origin, the first time he appears on panel, he’s on a dirtbike.
Scott Snyder: Yup.
CA: No cape, no sleeves, he’s got a crossbow, a lasso and a knife strapped to his leg. We talked about the Red Hood panel being the “yeah, we’re going there” moment, but what was the feeling like when you decided that would be your very first appearance of Batman?
SS: I really slaved over how to open it. I knew I wanted to open it with a flash-forward to that moment in the year, that season, but how to make it crazy enough without it seeming silly was really important. I knew by page four, that was where I was going to get the big image of Batman. For a while I thought maybe he’s riding a horse, and then I was like no, that’s too reminiscent of Dark Knight Returns. Well, maybe he comes down on a zipline and everything’s ropes and pulleys, it’s all low-tech, but that didn’t work. Then I was like, you know what, he’s riding his bike, it’s built for the jungles, it’s steam-powered to avoid detection, it’s just the craziest scene. Let’s just do it. There’s a kid who stabs a fish, he’s chased by a gang that has crazy mouth-masks, it just came together. To me, that announces that this is something you haven’t seen before as an origin, but also hopefully haven’t seen before in Batman.
You know, there’s a temptation, I’m not going to lie, to do the “Wild City” element and have the city overgrown in contemporary times, and do it in a way where immediately you have a Batman Event. The city’s overgrown and becomes a jungle kind of thing, almost post-apocalyptic, it could tie into the other books and you’d get a whole line out of it, which is always fun. You get to coordinate with all the other writers that you’re friends with. But after doing that with “Night of the Owls” and “Death of the Family,” I just wanted to go somewhere where it’s all me. It’s just me. So that was part of the front of it too, saying that it was going to be something different from any other origin and anything you’d seen, but also that it’s really our own, me, Greg Capullo, Dany Miki and FCO Plascencia. I hope you can see from those pages, the way it’s drawn, the way it’s colored and structured.
You get that sequence, then you have the title page, where you get a hint of what’s coming in all three arcs. If you’ve started the second arc at this point, you know Dr. Death is in it, and he has all this bone imagery. The second arc is about the bones of the city being broken and reset in different ways. The first image you see on page 5 is a thread that’s going down into a dark hole.
By the time you finish “Secret City,” you’ve seen that that’s the eye being lowered into the cave. The second image is the Dr. Death image, and the third image, I don’t want to give it away, but it’s from “Wild City.” Just doing something that says this is the scope of this story, we’re going crazy.
I really went to ground, quiet about it. I did a lot of interviews but I never said a word about anything that was going to be in any of it, and I tried to repeat myself, saying “this is the one time I don’t want to shill for it.” I didn’t want to go out and say “this is going to be the craziest thing because this happens, this happens, we’re going to see this character and that character,” I didn’t say anything about the Riddler or how there was going to be a post-apocalyptic scene. I just wanted to be like “just read it and see what you think. That’s all I can say.”
I wanted to almost acknowledge that anyone who heard that we were going to do the origin in twelve issues would think that it was going to be the most boring project of re-telling the stuff that we’ve seen a hundred times, whether it’s the pearls falling in Crime Alley, whether it’s Gordon, just those same beats over and over, and just relentlessly pummel you in those first five pages with “what the hell is this story?! This is insane! How am I supposed to accept this as the new origin?” Almost sort of stun you into forgetting it’s the origin so you can enjoy it.
CA: That’s one thing that really struck me about it: This is a Batman origin where we haven’t seen Thomas and Martha Wayne die. It’s talked about, and the Red Hood has a speech about it in #23, but we do not see the most important moment of Batman’s life. Is that because everyone reading “Zero Year” knows it already from seeing it in movies and TV shows and comics?
SS: No, it’s deliberate. It’s meant to be defiant. I’m not going to go and retread that moment in this arc, because you expect us to do it. That moment is in “Zero Year,” it’s done differently — believe me, it’s not done differently in a way that’s going to offend, but the context of it is different. You’ll see it issues later, when it’s intercut with something else. It takes on a different meaning, I think. It’s placed in the context of a different arc of “Zero Year,” without giving too much away. It has a new story behind it.
The point was to try to avoid anything you’d expect to see from the origin in this arc, and then lace those things throughout the other arcs. Each arc has a thing from the past that it’s dealing with. The second arc, if you’ve begun it, you see how it deals with what happens after Bruce falls into the cave and isn’t able to concentrate very well and tries to prove to himself that he’s not afraid to go to places in the city by himself. The third one deals with Bruce after his parents’ death, things you’ve never seen before about when he decides to leave. We wanted to do things that anchored each arc with the past, but moments from the past that you hadn’t seen even as they’re in this stream of really important events in Bruce’s life.
So yeah, it’s super deliberate not to show them getting shot in the first arc. We wanted to see if we could get away with it.
CA: Moving forward from the dirtbike opening — and I’m on the record as being pro-dirtbike in many respects — you took what I would consider to be a pretty huge risk with this story. I feel like we think about Batman in a lot of the same ways, but you bring Bruce back, before he’s Batman, into a Gotham City that has supervillains.
SS: Oh, yeah.
CA: The Red Hood is active, and you can say what you want, Scott, but we all know what you’re doing when you’re putting the Red Hood there at the beginning. [Laughs] We all know. But even beyond that, you’ve got Edward Nygma with a big green question mark in his office.
SS: Yep. You see Pamela Isley working with her research, you have Oswald Cobblepot, they’re all forming already.
CA: Not only that, but just in the first part, you have Wayne Tower, based on the actual building that looks like Batman, you have the giant penny. These are things we associate with Batman that show up after he’s started, but you have them there from before day one. I’ve always had this view of Batman, probably fostered by Year One, where he shows up as a reaction to normal crime and ends it. At the last page of Year One, there’s no more normal crime, and then crime evolves into supervillains to challenge Batman. You give us a Batman who returns to Gotham expecting to fight normal criminals and instead has to face supervillains that are already there.
SS: For me, the challenge was to use villains or create villains or reinvent them in some ways so that they’d represent the fears of a modern city, or that would feel contemporary given what Batman has to stand for to fight them. I tried not to think about it in terms of what it would mean to have villains that were larger than life as Batman was forming, because I love that idea, that Batman forms and then these villains form in response, but I also feel that it’s been done so many times at this point, after Year One, that the idea of Batman being responsible for the craziness of Gotham isn’t really an interesting question anymore.
I don’t know how you feel about it, but I love reading those stories that addressed that originally, but it’s played out in terms of being a question that you could raise now and then mine again and again.
CA: The question of being responsible for the villains, just by the nature of phrasing it as “responsibility,” implies that it’s his fault, and I hate things that make evil Batman’s fault. Even when it’s something as small as “Bruce wants to go to the movies,” I tend to reject, because then it’s “his fault.”
SS: It’s less about the villains forming in response to Batman and Gotham. I’ve always had this idea, and I hope it shows — it definitely shows later on in “Zero Year,” in the third section — that Gotham is like this living, breathing beast in a lot of ways. It has this crazy stone eye that it looks at people with, and that’s one of the big images that repeats throughout this story.
These dark, or almost molten circles. Circles of blood, circles of flame, circles of bone, and that sense of being watched by the city that’s staring at you with an unblinking eye and saying “what do you got? What are you going to do? How are you going to fight me off? Do you have it, or do you not?” In that way, it stares into you and sees your big fears, and challenges you with them. That sense of Bruce coming back and wanting to be larger than life before he becomes Batman, the City is going to challenge him with criminals that are already there too.
There’s a sense to me of the city paralleling him, mirroring him as he goes, challenging him at every turn in almost this supernatural way that’s never really legitimately or openly supernatural. It’s this kind of odd coincidence, this creepy sense that as he grows, it grows with him to challenge him. It doesn’t need him to become Batman to respond to him, it’s simultaneous, and it can provoke him with challenges as well that way, and say “are you willing to take the next step? Are you willing to become this crazy thing, this Batman, to fight them? To fight the Red Hood Gang? Are you willing to go over the edge into that kind of madness that’s inspiring and nutty and pathological all at once?”
CA: I think it’s also one of those elements that the New 52 version of the DC Universe is built around to distinguish it from… the old… however many titles there were.
SS: The Old 89.
CA: [Laughs] Right, the Old 89. Even in the Geoff Johns/Jim Lee Justice League, that’s a team that forms when parademons are already on Earth. You get that idea of heroes rising to a challenge that’s now built into the fabric of that universe. But do you ever worry that in doing that, you might be taking some of the proactiveness away from Batman? There’s always this idea in superhero fiction that heroes are necessarily, by their nature, reactive, because they always have to wait for the bad guys to transgress before they can step in.
SS: I think the difference is that we’re all acting on the idea that we know who the Red Hood might or might not become, but as he stands in that first arc, he’s really just a thug. He’s challenging someone to take him down and get bigger than him. He’s saying “what I stand for, and what this gang stands for, is the acknowledgement that,” based on the Waynes’ deaths, “you could die in an alley at any moment and that life itself, trying to struggle against your own mortality to mean something in the long run, to inspire people, is futile and meaningless.” In the same way that Little Red Riding Hood wears the red hood to invite the wolf even as she’s pretending to run away from him, he wears the red hood to acknowledge and honor and celebrate the violence that they know is coming their way at any moment.
That, to me, isn’t necessarily a supervillain, but it is a villain that has a philosophy that gives him an exceptional position. He’s not just a gang member, he has a purpose, and then that purpose needs a Batman to not just fight it, but completely outdo it and overshadow it. Then he needs to become the next thing along the way, which is why he says “this is what I believe and if you ever try to find purpose, if you ever become obsessed with anything that you think you can achieve or something worth banging your head against, it’ll just drive you mad.” That’s part of the fun of not knowing whether or not he’ll ever become Joker. That idea that when he sees Batman and falls in love with Batman, the idea of becoming something larger than he was, he renounces this idea of the philosophy that he had before and dives willingly into this madness that’s about always trying to serve and one-up Batman, serve and kill his king all at once.
CA: Let’s talk about the Red Hood a little more, then. At the end of the first arc, it’s revealed that whoever Red Hood One was at the start of things, that’s not who it was at the end. The original Red Hood was someone that you gave the name “Liam Distal,” which was a name so distinctive that I knew it had to mean something. At first I tried anagrams, and I don’t think “Salad Limit” is where you were going with that.
SS: [Laughs] That’s what it was.
CA: But “Liam” literally means “Helmet of Will,” and I figured I was onto something with that.
SS: It does. That’s one of the reasons I used it. The reason, honestly, was that I wanted something that had that force, that idea of the helmet, the hood, and “Distal,” you can talk about the different bones in the hand. It’s the hand that pushes things forward and points and accuses. But “Liam” is also a nickname for “William,” so it’s “Bill Finger” in some ways. It’s all those things at once, to pay tribute to some of Batman’s creators, but also underscored what the Red Hood and Joker do to Batman, symbolically. It’s there, even if you never put the Bill Finger reference together at once.
CA: I noticed re-reading it yesterday that there’s a line in there about how “Gotham has always had a hard time trusting the Kanes,” and I laughed out loud at that.
SS: It’s the fun of poking fun at Bob Kane, but also at the Kane family in the story itself.
CA: “Secret City” focuses on five major characters. Batman and Alfred, Red Hood, Edward Nygma, who becomes the Riddler at the end, and then Uncle Philip. Uncle Philip is a very old character, a character from the ’50s that had fallen into disuse, who was Bruce Wayne’s last surviving relative. The original version was created to explain who Bruce’s guardian after his parents died was, a role that has largely fallen to Alfred in modern times.
SS: Right. It seems so implausible that it could fall to Alfred that you needed an Uncle Philip in some ways to get there.
CA: So why did you want to bring him back?
SS: I wanted it to be something where Bruce comes back and doesn’t want to take on the responsibilities that his parents wanted for him. And by “responsibilities,” I don’t just mean the company. The thing that interested me about Thomas and Martha is that they’re such public figures, Thomas being a doctor when he has no reason to be a doctor whatsoever, especially in city hospitals, and Martha setting up schools and being a crusader, there’s something about the civic example that they set that demands a response from Bruce. The one thing I’ll say when I started on Batman was that I was going to take Frank Miller’s Batman and run with it, because I love that version so much. I started writing Bruce way before I started my first issue, just practicing, messing around, and I think this happens with everybody who writes Batman, or any character that’s iconic, you get to a point where you realize your version suddenly veers away from the versions that you thought it was completely built upon.
I have a lot of difficulty believing that Bruce would make “Bruce” that bumbling, drunken playboy that he is in some versions, just because it’s such a disservice to his parents and what they stood for publicly that it discredits their legacy in a lot of ways. The lesson I wanted Bruce to learn that I thought would be very different from anything we’ve seen him have to accept before in his formative years, was that he needs to have “Bruce Wayne” mean something, and the vigilante mean something. That’s what his parents stood for. Everything they did set an example and inspired in some way, for better or worse. That’s what Alfred is saying to him, that you’re shaming your parents’ legacy by frightening as a ghost, with no identity that inspires anything, in that first arc where he’s just fighting as a vigilante in the shadows. You leave Bruce Wayne rotting in the ground, legally dead, and your parents would be ashamed of you at this point.
For me, that was the idea: To have him come back and learn that. So I thought about it. Who’s running Wayne Enterprises? Is it Lucius Fox? Well, Lucius isn’t really contentious. There’s not a lot of meat there, even though Lucius plays a big role in the second arc. It was about creating someone that would say the same thing to Bruce, but would be a father figure that would rival Alfred in a way that would create a different viewpoint, so Uncle Philip stuck out to me.
I love taking characters that are in continuity that nobody has taken advantage of — like James Gordon Jr. — and using them. I’d been aware of Uncle Philip for a long time and wondered why he hadn’t been picked up, so my feeling was let’s bring him in. It was very important to me to not make him a moustache-twirling villain or an evil guy, because it’s too easy, and it plays too directly into the Hamlet mythology that we’re playing with here. It would just be too over the top. I wanted to create a character in Uncle Philip that was misguided, but not without honor and not without purpose and some kind of redeeming elements. I’m really proud of how he came out.
He wants badly for Wayne Enterprises to be something his sister would be proud of, and he wants to turn it into something that’s profitable, a mega-titan of industry that rivals anything in Metropolis, but deep down, I think he knows that he doesn’t understand the city. There’s something at work there that’s opposing him, that’s almost super-antagonistic, and Gotham’s laughing at him because he thinks he can change the city. He thinks he can come in and use its resources and make this company that’s a shining beacon for the city, when the city never asked for it. I wanted to have that feel when he looks at the bedrock in that fourth issue, and he’s perplexed.
He’s frustrated. It’s an unforgiving rock that doesn’t change, this schist, and Bruce is like “It is,” but Bruce understands it in a very different way than Philip does.
CA: The interesting thing about Philip for me was that you made him, in a lot of ways, a mirror to Bruce. From the moment he shows up and takes Bruce to his headquarters that has the giant penny and looks like Batman.
CA: He’s kind of a detective, because he finds Bruce at the Crime Alley brownstone. He’s using Wayne Enterprises to make nonlethal weapons. He has a secret identity where he wears a mask. You see all these parallels between Bruce and his family, the kind of dark half of his family, as this very subtle version of how it could’ve been for Bruce.
SS: I’m glad you pointed that out. Part of what he’s saying to Bruce is “you need to accept the responsibilities that your name demands. I’m having trouble with this company, they don’t like me. They don’t like what I’m doing. You need to come back and be the public face and honor your parents that way,” and Alfred’s saying “you need to honor your parents in this other way,” and what I wanted was for Bruce to get caught in the middle and find a way of his own.
The thing about Philip that’s tragic to me, and what he doesn’t understand, is that he does everything out of a sense of responsibility and duty. He tells Bruce the story about how his father got him out of a cave, which is another fun parallel too, and pulled him out when he was down there on a geological expedition and made him come back and run the company. In that way, he’s resentful, but he thinks there’s great honor and dignity in doing the things you’re supposed to. What I really tried hard to set up, and I spent a lot of time on the phone with friends, working on this idea, is this idea that Gotham punishes you for that. For cowardice. It sees it as cowardice, it looks at you with that big glowing eye and says “You’re going to do what you’re supposed to do? You’re going to waste your life doing the thing you’re required to do? People come to this city to become the thing that people said they can’t be, and that’s what I reward.” The mad knight, not just the dark knight, but that sense of the person becoming that thing that’s impossible to become. The great fighter, the detective, the chemist, engineer, all those things that are impossible to become the best at all at once, that’s the person, that’s the symbol of the city swinging over you. The one that defies all logic.
The actual achievement that he represents that way is that he’s craziness. That’s part of the fun. That’s why that line in #24 is key to me, where Bruce says “you know this thing we’re building down here is madness, Alfred,” and Alfred says “Oh, yes, sir, but it’s the kind of madness this city rewards.”
CA: I’m sure we’re going to talk about Edward Nygma more when we get to “Dark City” and “Wild City,” because he really becomes the Riddler when the Red Hood exits the story, but he’s there from the beginning. He’s intricately tied into Philip, and therefore tied into Bruce. They have that Orobouros conversation very early, in #22.
SS: Which was meant as a nod to Grant, by the way. We’d talked, and I told him “I’m going to try to nod to you with that.”
CA: I saw it and I thought you and Greg just hated Guided View on Comixology.
SS: [Laughs] I know, right?
CA: We’ve talked before about the Riddler. The detective aspect of Batman is often the most underused, because compared to all the other stuff he does, it’s often the most boring, but it’s a huge part of his character, and if he’s going to be the World’s Greatest Detective, he needs to have that kind of mental challenge that you get from the Riddler, the guy that he has to outwit rather than outpunch. Obviously, that’s your reason for using the Riddler in the story, but why have him there so early on?
SS: That was the whole idea, to have him challenge Batman when Batman first appears. He appears first in Detective Comics, he’s a detective, and so he has a character who sets up mysteries and riddles that are almost impossible to solve, and life-and-death. That was the idea of using him. I wanted him there from the beginning, though, because I wanted to sort of give you the sense that this was going to be a story that had those high stakes. Honestly, you could come along and show Batman rising against the kind of mafia and mob that exists today, I’m sure, and make it really compelling and cool, whether it’s the Eastern Promises Russian mob, or street crime, or whatever. Someone could do it. But for me, that’s just not interesting, because of how well Year One does that with the urban rot of the city. It was announced from the beginning that this was a story that had Batman forming alongside the more colorful villains that you associate him with, but at the same time, showing them in a different light.
I really wanted this to be a story where Riddler gets his due in a huge way. He’s not really different at his core. He’s still the smartest guy in the room, boastful and arrogant, and aggravatingly confident and totally callous about it. He’s not a murderer. He’s not someone who goes around with death and killing as his goal, like some of the other Batman villains do. He’s not about anarchy or anything like that, the way Joker can be. He’s about showing off and saying “I dare you to try to solve this puzzle that I set for you.” That was why I wanted to put him in there early, to say that it was the kind of story that has these huge, fun, epic characters in it.
CA: The central figure of the story is Batman, obviously. His name’s on the cover in big letters. In this first part, you almost get to the point where you could cut it at the end of “Secret City,” because by the end of #24, he’s in the costume, he’s separated himself from Bruce Wayne, Bruce Wayne is back in the public eye as the son of Thomas and Martha Wayne, he and Alfred are together. He doesn’t have the relationship with the police yet, but all those other elements are there. But the one thing you have, and you’ve talked about making it a personal story, is that you establish that he has a love for Gotham City in a way that is very, very rarely addressed in any other story. In Year One, he hates Gotham. There’s that famous opening, the dueling narration where Batman and Gordon are coming in and they’re both talking about how much they hate this city, which makes you wonder why he would even bother in a lot of ways. It makes it a very personal quest for vengeance. In this version of Batman, you set it up so that it feels more altruistic. There’s still the “my parents died so I must make war on all criminals” opening, and that’s very established in #21, 22 and 23 through conversations with Alfred, but #24 ends with this big speech about why he loves Gotham City. You’ve talked about how that parallels you being a kid in New York.
SS: Oh, very much, yeah. It was trying to figure out, honestly, how to rebuild Bruce from the ground up for myself. I always take it for granted that he loves Gotham and protects Gotham but hates Gotham, but when you take it back to its core, you have to ask “why the hell does he care?” Gotham robbed him of his parents. He didn’t live there, he didn’t grow up in Gotham. What is so special about this city to him? What is the connection that he feels that he’s going to go to war to protect it? Is it just going to war with the city that took your parents?
To me, that’s that kind of super-pathological idea that’s in Miller, that’s so potent and great, but I was thinking that if the city was going to be different today, what he’s going to be fighting is this random violence and this sense of terrorism, people trying to make the citizens of Gotham feel terrified and helpless and hopeless, you’d need to be someone who saw the other side of what the city represented to those people and stood for it. That was a key moment, months and months ago, a year ago really, when I was thinking of what the core of the first arc was.
That’s why that phrase, “What do you love about Gotham?” repeats. It’s that big text phrase that you see in #21 when he’s a kid, and then you hear it again in that speech you just referenced. You see it in the text in that issue, when Red Hood is looking at the newspaper and it says “What do you want with our city, Batman?” It’s that question, that sense of constantly questioning what’s special about Gotham to Batman and Bruce that he would want to defend it. I really felt that the key moment of the whole arc would be finding the answer to that question. What was it that attracted him to the city as a kid, and now as an adult, that now he’s willing to sacrifice everything, the makings of a happy life, to make sure it stands for something that matters to the citizens here?
To me, that was fun. It was a new question. It was a new take on his relationship to the city that I didn’t feel I had seen before. It was about dissecting that, and really, at its heart, when you boil it down to its essence, to me, it was about him understanding that he loves the city because it challenges you to become the thing you know you can be, even though people have told you it’s impossible to become that thing. Even if you’re the person telling yourself that it’s impossible to become that thing. It’s a city that looks at you and says “go ahead, I dare you, try to become the doctor that you want to be, the businessman, the thing you come here to be that you think you dream of so that you can add to the world. I’m going to throw every obstacle at you and bring your worst nightmares about yourself to life, but if you overcome those things, you’ll be the best version of that thing you hope to become.” Batman is the ultimate example of that. I needed that speech to underscore that idea.
Think about it like this: Red Hood is saying “stand for nothing,” which is a fun phrase. Join the Red Hood Gang — or let him scare you into joining the Red Hood Gang because nobody really joins it, they’re all normal people, not career criminals, just people that he gets something on to force them to join the gang and then they’re only in it when he calls upon them, so it’s an unconventional gang in that regard — and stand for nothing. Stand for meaninglessness and anarchy, as long as you acknowledge that you court the violence and that the violence of the world can come and get you the way it did the Waynes, at any moment, on a sunny morning like 9/11 or the marathon bombing, as long as you celebrate the idea that that’s going to happen at some point, you can be a member. Batman comes along and says that’s a farce. Life is meaningful. The city makes it meaningful because we’re all in it together, here to become the things we want to be. The legacy of his parents is that their deaths might have been meaningless, but their lives were full of meaning, and he’s a crazy, twisted example of that.
So he becomes Batman, and he needs a villain that challenges him in that regard, that says “you created yourself as a symbol of inspiration and defiance, then let me bring your worst fears to life, just as the city would, to challenge you, but I only do it to make you a better hero.” So for me, at least in my own personal, private moments, it ties perfectly into that Joker that we built around “Death of the Family,” the Joker that I love, that I intend on bringing back too in different ways.
CA: That’s a revelation that makes a really good end of a story and works well for the end of “Secret City,” but were you worried that there wouldn’t be anywhere for Batman to go over the next two acts?
SS: I was worried, yeah, but now, we’re past the most critical origin stuff. The second part, you saw a glimpse of in those opening pages. It’s not really a story that’s disguised as an origin and it’s really a big bombastic crazy-ass Batman story, it’s deeply the origin. That said, the context and tone of it has always been high action, almost science fiction insanity, so the biggest parts are still coming. Believe me, it gets bombastic, you haven’t seen the biggest and most city-shattering things yet, and they’re the biggest I’ve ever tried in that respect. “Dark City” happens during this blackout, where this super-storm is approaching while the Riddler’s blacked out the city, and he dares the police to turn it back on. Batman knows something’s going to happen if they turn it back on, but he doesn’t quite know what, and Dr. Death is sneaking around, killing Wayne scientists, and Batman’s trying to figure out what’s going on. The third section is really his face-off with the Riddler.
Each one is designed around a lesson that Bruce needs to learn to become the Batman that we know. The first one is that he has to acknowledge what he really wants and what he loves about the city, and in acknowledging that, becoming a public symbol of that, both as Batman and as Bruce, a symbol of inspiration. The second arc is making sure that Batman isn’t something born out of vengeance and resentment, because the bones grow wrong that way, and he could become something monstrous and failed. The third section, really, without giving anything away, is the big faceoff, where he learns everything he’s going to have to give up if he’s going to be the Batman he wants to be, and accepting that. It’s the tragedy of Batman. I know those are the three pieces, and they happen against the backdrop of this almost Jerry Bruckheimer, Michael Bay kind of action.
I’m very proud of it in that regard. It’s almost like it’s disguised as huge, bludgeoning action and total fun and sci-fi and all those things, but it’s deeply personal and very much about the things that I think make Batman who he is, done in different ways. There’s a lot of darkness to it, too. The second arc in particular is pretty grim, but it’s couched in all this stuff that’s over-the-top and fun. I try to sneak it in there, the stuff that really matters to me, the darker and personal stuff, beneath the fun.
CA: There’s definitely a darkness to it, but there’s this other aspect where there’s an unstoppable optimism to it, that you’d have to have for a guy, even a kid, to believe he could end crime.
SS: Completely! It’s a fantasy that you have to buy into, and you buy into it as Bruce. The only reason to do it is that when people see the fantasy, even for a moment, existing, it inspires them in their own lives to think they can do the things they want to do even when they seem impossible at times. You’re absolutely there to strike fear into the hearts of criminals, don’t get me wrong. He’s not there to be a happy, inspirational figure all the time, but being that thing that can stop crime even for one night and save someone from what happened to him, you’re proving that thing can exist. That fantasy and that insane thing can be.
That’s a powerful lesson, I think, for people living in a city that challenges them right and left.
CA: Because the lesson is that you can beat it. That chaos isn’t all there is and life is worth living, and it’s not about vengeance.
SS: It’s not about vengeance. I love versions like that, but for me, it needed to be Batman forming in the face of the things you’d be afraid of in a city today. Look, I grew up in the city in the ’80s. I grew up in New York looking at Frank Miller’s city. I grew up down waterside on 23rd street, and we’d go to Times Square to get fake IDs. You’d see those things. I didn’t live in a bad neighborhood, but you’d see the things you see in Year One. The challenge here is what does Batman form against, what is he fighting in a city now? And it has to be terrorism and random violence, it has to be the things you’re going to be afraid of happening to you in a city now, the bombs and guns and planes crashing into buildings, but there wasn’t a way to do the story, at least for me, maybe someone else could, where the stuff was completely literal. It needed to be represented, to me, through a gang that would feel almost superhuman.
Not because I’m afraid of dealing with contemporary issues through it, but because I feel like it would almost reduce it and make it something less timeless, or reductive. It would wind up being “how does Batman fight terrorism” rather than “how does Batman conquer the fear of meaninglessness that terrorism inspires.”