Chris Burnham Talks ‘Batman Incorporated’ And Batman Japan: ‘There’s Only One Thing They Asked Me To Re-Draw’
Chris Burnham has drawn some strange things over the past few years. As the regular artist on Batman Incorporated, he’s taken on Batcow and the evil forces of Leviathan, and those aren’t even close to being the weird ones. With his last issue on the title on the horizon, he stopped to talk with us at San Diego Comic-Con International about his time drawing the book, his love of Go Nagai and Shotaro Ishinomori, and the one thing he was asked to re-draw.
Spoilers for recent issues of Batman Inc. (and other DC titles) follow!
ComicsAlliance: Your lasting legacy as a Batman creator, if you never get to do a Batman comic again once Batman Incorporated ends, is that you’re… the co-creator of Batcow.
Chris Burnham: Right. I thought you were going to say “the guy who killed Damian.”
CA: We’ll get to it. But you were telling me that’s one of the only things you got a note on.
CB: Other than having to re-draw characters’ costumes to make them in the New 52, I’m pretty sure that the only art note I ever got in two and a half years is that I had to re-draw the mask spot on Batcow’s face. I guess the first time I drew it, it literally looked like he was wearing a mask, when it was supposed to be a spot on his face that just happened to look like a domino mask. I had to redraw that to make it look a little more organic, although it’s still pretty clearly a bat on his face.
I’d have to look at the original artwork again to see what it was like, I really can’t remember, but it was the only thing I had to re-draw.
CA: That’s kind of odd, because there’s been a lot of weird stuff in that story. You had to draw a giant with a baby face. You had to draw the New 52 version of Babyface from Brave and the Bold.
CB: Right. No mention at all, just “good work!”
CA: Looking back, is there anything you’re particularly fond of?
CB: I really, really liked that page in the first issue where Batman and Robin are swinging over the city and there are three or four panels projected on the side of the building as though they’re billboards. That one worked really well.
CA: You also did redesigns for all of the Outsiders.
CB: You know, I was really happy with my redesign for Halo and Looker. I never really got to show them in all their glory, they’re always obscured or shot from the back and never really standing there. I guess they’re on the cover to #2, but yeah. I redesigned them, and Freight Train, the big monster guy of the book. I slightly redesigned him to make him look a little sleeker and got to draw that costume one time. He got blown up in that building.
CA: Was there any resistance to that from editorial? I believe he was a Dan DiDio creation.
CB: As far as I know, we didn’t get any resistance. I don’t think we explicitly killed him, though. I mean, you can assume he’s dead, but I don’t think we explicitly killed him. Oh, we did get a note on that, though. He got impaled by a piece of wood that went in his back and out of his stomach so there was all kinds of blood and guts, and apparently one of DC’s big editorial no-nos is that when someone gets impaled, you can’t see it coming out of them. It can go in, but not out.
CA: A book just came out where Superman vaporized a guy’s face with his heat vision, so of all the places to draw the line, that seems like a weird choice.
CB: If you look at that artwork in… the end of #6, maybe? The colorist had to turn Freight Train’s blood into something that looks like chocolate pudding.
CA: As an artist drawing that book, redesigning the Outsiders for such a brief appearance seems so strange. When you get the script and you’re talking to Morrison and you hear “we’re going to use the Outsiders in this issue,” do you think “okay, I don’t know how long I’m going to have to draw these characters, so I better design them in a way that I’m comfortable with?” Did someone higher up say that they needed new costumes? How did it come about?
CB: I really don’t remember. There’s no way I would’ve taken that upon myself, just because it’s extra work, so they must’ve said “hey, can you make us New 52 versions of these people,” and I said sure and spent a day doing it. I was definitely leaning towards making them simpler to draw. I’ve designed some really annoying costumes to draw in my day. Officer Downe is one that sticks out in my head, that thing is such a beast to draw.
CA: Somehow it’s even more complicated than Judge Dredd.
CB: It’s just piping and ribbing everywhere. Just an absolute nightmare. So I was trying to go for a sort of Cory Walker, pared-down style. Draw a naked lady and then draw three lines on her. Those sorts of costumes.
CA: Is that the design aesthetic you favor? Something sleeker and classic, or do you like to do those costumes like Officer Downe where there are pentagrams everywhere and it has so much to look at?
CB: I like drawing a complicated thing once. If I have to do it over and over again, I greatly prefer the simplified thing. The hard part about the simple thing is that it’s impossible. How do you boil a character down to a naked person with five lines and have it look distinctive? There’s 2,000 comic book characters out there that are all naked people with silly colors and squiggles on them, how do you make them stand out as being novel? It’s impossible. It’s really, really hard.
CA: As far as style goes, your art really lends itself well to detail and dynamic angles, which I imagine helped a lot on doing Batman Incorporated. It was your first mainstream superhero work, right?
CB: I’d done like sixteen pages of X-Men and that one Marvel Mystery one-shot with Namor and the Human Torch, but yeah, my first big superhero work was that sequence in Batman and Robin #16. I really got plopped into the big time.
CA: I mean this in the nicest way possible, but what do you think it was about your work that made DC want to keep you on the book? Before you, Morrison’s run on Batman had cycled through a lot of different artists after Andy Kubert, from Frank Quitely to Cameron Stewart to Philip Tan to Andy Clarke to Frazer Irving to Yanick Paquette. With Batman Inc., especially, you’re the one who seems to have stuck around the longest.
CB: I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. One thing I think Grant responds to is that he refers to Frank Quitely and my style as almost being a style-free style. I can’t remember how he puts it.
CA: Like the Jeet Kune Do of drawing?
CB: We both have cartoony, wonky faces, but we both draw literally. Here’s a room, here’s what a room looks like, here are legitimate-looking people in this room. I think that’s what Grant responds to, a comic booky take on real-world dynamics. I don’t know, but I’m happy that he did. For whatever reason, he liked my stuff, and I was as blown away as anyone else was. He’s worked with a ton of guys.
CA: That’s an interesting evaluation of your style, because you’re both known for doing those big, complicated pages. You talked about the shot of the building, or the shattered glass in Batman Inc. where each shard was a reaction shot, or like Quitely’s cutaway of the prison in All Star Superman.
CB: Oh, right. Then I don’t know. (laughs)
CA: Let’s talk about Damian. How did you feel about murdering a child?
CB: Thank you for putting it that way. I felt really bad about it. Along with everyone else who read the character in his first appearance, I thought he was obnoxious and inappropriate, but by the end of that third issue, I really liked him, and he really came into his own in those first three Frank Quitely issues of Batman and Robin where everyone fell in love with him. Before I’d ever drawn it, I got the outline for the second volume of Inc, and it was like “oh s**t, we’re gonna kill this guy.”
There’s one page in Batman Inc. #6 where Batman’s talking about his future vision, and he says “not everyone’s going to come back alive,” and Damian’s looking quizzically up at him. I knew exactly what that meant, along with five other people in the world. I’ve always known that it wasn’t going to work out well.
CA: A lot of people had that same reaction that you did and got attached to Damian and his journey from being exactly what you expect from a kid engineered by supervillains to being Batman’s son. The last time I talked to you was right after it came out, so I don’t think you’d gotten a lot of reactions about it, but what has that been like?
CB: I really haven’t gotten too much vitriol. I somehow dodged that bullet, I think because Grant wrote it and I just drew the thing, so it’s all directed at him.
CA: Was it weird for you as someone who had an emotional investment in that story to see the announcement that they were going to do the possible future story?
CB: I didn’t know about it until I read the press release with all of you guys. If anyone’s going to do it, Andy Kubert should be the guy. That’s exactly how I feel about it.
CA: We talked about Batman Inc. being your first big superhero work as an artist, but #11 was really the first time you’d written an issue, right?
CB: I’d written #0, which Frazer Irving drew. It’s almost like a Giant Size X-Men #1, so there’s 10 different scenes of Batman recruiting everyone. I basically wrote it and Grant did a script polish. There’s a little bit of collaboration at the beginning, but it’s 80% written by me, and I guess the editors thought it was decent enough. They asked me if I wanted to write a fill-in. Originally, we were going to do, I think two, maybe even three of these over the course of the run, but we only ended up with the one.
I’d known for six months or a year that they wanted me to do this, and I pitched a story about a team of brainwashed, evil motorcycle villains for Batman to take out. That was my initial thought: “I like Kamen Rider! What if Kamen Rider was a bad guy?” That was basically what the story was.
CA: There’s a lot of crazy Japanese pop culture stuff in it, like the Mach 5 Batmobile, the Kamen Rider scarf. It thought that was an interesting design choice, since we hadn’t seen him since he was Mr. Unknown. Was there anything you wanted to put in there that you didn’t get away with?
CB: I’m sure there was. There were a couple of scenes that I tried to fit into the short anthology story that I’m writing in the Batman Inc. special, and I couldn’t get them in there either. I hope I find a way eventually, but I got most of my silly manga and anime tropes out of the way. Hopefully if I get to write him again, I can turn him into an actual character instead of just a pastiche of Shotaro Ishinomori and Go Nagai comic books.
What I thought was really weird was that I assumed everyone was operating from my same frame of reference. There’s all sorts of Go Nagai references in that first Batman Japan issue, and I suicidally read every review. Some were really mean, I got a couple of “worst comic of the year,” I got one “worst comic I’ve ever read,” but not a single person noticed all the Go Nagai stuff, which is one of my shining influences. It’s kind of weird. If you haven’t heard of him, he created Cutie Honey, Mazinger Z, Getter Robo, my favorite…
I’m excited about the special. It incorporates Japan’s love of vending machines and capsule hotels, and turns into a story with a lot of punching and kicking and super-science.