Ed Brubaker Looks Back On Batman, Part One: The Most Driven, Depressing, Exciting Character Of All Time
With long runs on hit titles like Captain America, Daredevil, Sleeper, Fatale, Criminal and more, writer Ed Brubaker has cemented his position as one of the most prominent writers in American comics, and he got his start with superheroes with Batman. After being brought in from the world of crime comics to write the Batman comics in 2000, Brubaker rose to prominence with his work on Gotham City's heroes, including cowriting the seminal Gotham Central, relaunching Catwoman with a critically acclaimed and influential new direction, and retelling the first encounter between Batman and the Joker.
This week, ComicsAlliance is taking a look back at Brubaker's tenure on the Dark Knight with an in-depth interview, and today, we start off with a look back at the writer's work on Batman and Detective Comics, discussing how he got the jobs, how Batman got him back into reading superhero comics, and the surprising character he picks out as a favorite.
ComicsAlliance: Your first work on Batman was a Prestige Format one-shot called Gotham Noir, right?
Ed Brubaker: Yeah, that was my first superhero comic I ever did, I think, if you can call it that. [Laughs]
CA: Was it Scene of the Crime that brought you to the attention of the Batman office?
EB: It was a strange road. I had started getting published in the '90s, I was doing my own comics and I was doing a couple of things for Vertigo, one for [editor] Lou Stathis. A few years later, [editpr] Shelly Roeberg (now Bond) who had been Lou Stathis's girlfriend, reached out to me. I pitched a bunch of things to her for a while, and nothing stuck.Then I pitched Scene of the Crime to her, thinking it was so un-Vertigo that she'd just give up on me, and [Vertigo Executive Editor] Karen Berger approved it the next day. So I was like "Oh, sh*t. I really have to do this."
Through Shelly, I got hooked up with Michael Lark, and a couple of months after the first issue of that came out, I was at the Savannah College of Art and Design, and [DC Executive Editor] Mike Carlin was there. He had been reading the flats of Scene of the Crime when they were coming in because he was a fan of Michael's -- my whole career is based on editors being fans of artists that I've worked with. So Mike Carlin came to me and said "Why don't you try and write something for the DCU?" And I said "I don't think I have any ideas for superheroes." [Laughs]
This is fifteen years ago, and I can look back on it now and it's funny that I would've said it, but at the time, I really didn't think I could do anything like Batman, and he said "Well, if you can write a mystery comic, you can write Batman." So he just insisted that I do something, and I went home and sat around trying to think of a pitch for a one-shot, and they were still doing Elseworlds at the time, so I pitched Gotham Noir. Which was how I ended up getting hooked up with Sean Phillips, too.
While that was being worked on, [editor] Bob Schreck took over [the Batman group] from Denny O'Neil. I had actually pitched a Batman comic with Michael while we were doing Scene of the Crime, though. Michael had been approached to do an issue of Legends of the Dark Knight, so he asked me if I wanted to write it. I pitched a thing that I ended up doing later in Batman, the issue that Sean drew, about the detective that investigates the Wayne murders.
The thing that I pitched was basically that same idea, but the detective was Slam Bradley, and it would be Slam Bradley's last case when he was a policeman, which he was passing the case onto Batman from his deathbed. That was my big hook, and they said no. Maybe because of No Man's Land or something, or they didn't like it, but they said no. [Laughs] Then, a couple months later, I was being asked if I wanted to try out for the regular Batman book.
CA: Was there any discussion of you coming on board with the 2000 Batman revamp?
EB: No, I was replacing Larry Hama who was doing the book post-No Man's Land, and I think the book just wasn't what DC wanted it to be. They decided it was going to be more the more superhero-y book in the Bat-line, and that's what Larry and Scott McDaniel were doing, but it wasn't going over well. So DC wanted to go in a new direction again, and I had been getting a lot of award nominations for Scene of the Crime. Bob Schreck, who was running the Bat office all the sudden, was an old friend of mine who had given me some of my first breaks at Dark Horse, so he was already in my corner a bit, when Mike Carlin threw my name into the mix.
So I got the gig and I ran with it and tried to figure out what my kind of superhero comics were. But I look back on that stuff and it's a mixed bag for me. I was having fun doing it, but at the time, I was so new to superhero comics, and the people that I'd worked with were people like Sean or Michael, who were much more along the same lines as me, stylistically. Seven panels a page, people standing around talking, and the occasional action scene. But Scott McDaniel was more into double-page spreads and constant motion, so I felt like he and I were not simpatico in the stories we wanted to tell at all. That said, I think we each tried to make concessions to give the other person what they wanted. Like, I never write double-page spreads normally, and there's a bunch of them in those. So that was difficult for me, at the time, especially because I was so new to that kind of comic writing.
Still, because of that, I think in each issue we did, one of us is doing something we wouldn't have done otherwise, and there's some good stuff in there that I wouldn't have written if not for having to stretch in a different direction.
CA: And McDaniel was on the book for the entirety of your run on Batman, until you switched over to Detective.
EB: Yeah. We had the odd fill-in issue here and there during crossovers, but mostly, Scott drew all my issues for a couple of years. And Scott is a very talented artist, by the way. He and Chuck Dixon did a great run on Nightwing, and he drew one of my all-time favorite Batman covers, during Bruce Wayne: Murderer. That one where Bruce is a shadow, just his teeth showing. I just saw someone else do that exact same cover last year on some book.
CA: What was the editorial direction when you took over Batman? I know the original idea behind the 2000 relaunch was that Detective was the crime book, Batman was the superhero book and Gotham Knights was the team-up book. You came in from crime and mysteries. Was there a direction to just move into straight superhero stories, or did you have leeway? Did you have a conversation with Greg Rucka where he was like, "No, I'M writing the crime book!"
EB: No, we never had that. Knowing that I was working with Scott, and that Scott wanted a lot of action, I knew that I had to do at least a quarter or a third of the book like that, but the stories that I pitched were all mysteries or crime stories that had Batman and Bruce Wayne in them, and Schreck was totally fine with that. I think Bob inherited the books after No Man's Land when they'd set that out, and the superhero Batman thing had kind of already flopped, basically. The over-the-top Batman-as-Superhero just isn't that appealing. It removes a lot that's really interesting about Batman to readers and to the stories themselves, the mystery and the dark tone. That's what Batman's about, it's about shadows and crime and a guy haunted by his shattered childhood.
I mean, you know. It's Batman. It's the most driven, depressing, yet exciting character of all time, but Big Superhero, he's not. So I never had any static about that.
My first Batman comic was a story about the guy who used to be the head of security for Wayne Enterprises, who had a family tragedy similar to Bruce's and turned into a bad guy. And it was a really dark crime story, leaning on Batman being a detective. Just with a bunch of action, too, and a villain with camera lenses for eyes -- Zeiss, who Greg actually named for me.
CA: And you and Greg first teamed up to plot "Officer Down" right?
EB: Right. I got there right as Officer Down had been scheduled, the story where Gordon gets shot and retires. I saw in your interview with Greg that Greg said that I was at that retreat, but I actually wasn't. I met him at the next retreat after that, after Denny retired. I've never met Denny O'Neil, but I can see why Greg would remember it that way. We had so many meetings back in those days, it seemed like we were flying to New York every three or four months for some conference, me, him, Devin Grayson, Kelly Puckett and Chuck Dixon.
So yeah, when Officer Down hit, Bob looked at who was working on the books, saw me and Greg as the crime writers, and said "okay, you guys write the spine for this."
And that's really where Gotham Central started, in a way. We were outlining the story, and there was an issue where Montoya and Allen were walking through this supervillain crime scene and talking it through, and that was the moment where both Greg and I thought "we've got to do that as a whole series," instead of whatever else they were trying to get us to do. That's where me and Greg's collaboration and friendship really began. We were halfway through this, and I remember calling him up and saying, "These scenes with Montoya and Allen at the crime scene are so much more fun than having to write Azrael doing anything, you know?" And he was like "Yeah, I know." I said "Why don't we just do Homicide, but in Gotham?"
And Powers had just come out, around that same time, too, and I remember thinking "Well, Powers is a huge hit and it's set in a world where nobody knows who the villains are. If we did a book along those lines set in Gotham City, the bad guys are all people that you know, and the book is actually canon. That would be amazing, and it would probably be an even huger hit!" I'm always known for being able to predict what's going to be a hit, obviously. [Laughs] Then over a year passed before we actually got to do Gotham Central, because we were waiting for Michael to finish Hawkman.
CA: So were there any guidelines at all when you started on Batman, then?
EB: There was a "Batman bible" that I got, leftover from the previous regime, and there was some really funny stuff in there that I still remember. There was this page describing Batman, that said that he was a virgin. All these girls he'd dated over the years as this playboy, he'd never slept with any of them, because having sex would somehow prevent him from being Batman. Apparently if all these women got together, they'd find out that he always had a headache, like they always thought they were the only one and it was their secret shame. "God, I couldn't even get Bruce Wayne to sleep with me!" It was like Bruce Wayne was some quarterback ordered by his coach not to have sex the night before a big game, but the big game was his entire life. That totally cracked me up.
There was this other page that really stuck out to me, that was about how Batman was the real person and Bruce Wayne was the mask. That was how they were looking at it, and then it said, "And he is not insane." And I was just like, "Well, come on. That's pretty much the definition of it right there." [Laughs]
CA: You talked about getting away from the idea of the big, over-the-top superhero Batman when you took over, but you also talked about Zeiss and how he's a guy with cameras for eyes.
CA: I've always wondered about that. I was familiar with you from Scene of the Crime and Gotham Noir, which I really like a lot. I'm really fond of the silly idea in that book, that Bruce Wayne managed to get through serving as infantry in World War II without killing anyone.
EB: Yeah, the idea is that Bruce Wayne in Gotham Noir is definitely not Batman. That was one of the ideas in there. I haven't looked at that book in years, but I remember it being about 120 pages of story crammed into 64.
CA: It does move quickly.
EB: Yeah. I have the unique distinction of being, I think, one of the last Elseworlds, so they didn't keep that in print at all until a few years ago, and also I think I was the last Prestige Format project with The Man Who Laughs.
CA: We're going to get to that, don't worry. But about Zeiss, I've always wondered if that was you trying to play the game and making such a DC COMICS SUPERVILLAIN, you know? "If they want a superhero story, here's a bad guy with camera eyes!"
EB: The story for me was about the other guy, and Zeiss was just an antagonist to bring into the middle of it. I think I'd gotten the job, and I hadn't read superhero comics since Watchmen. I basically stopped reading superhero comics after I got to the end of Watchmen. So I hadn't really read mainstream comics in a decade, for the most part. Then I was suddenly writing Batman.
So I went to Comic Experience -- I lived in San Francisco at the time -- and I asked the guy behind the counter, "What's going on in superhero comics right now that's actually good and interesting?" He's like, "Well, have you read Planetary or The Authority?" and showed me a bunch of Warren Ellis stuff, and that was my first exposure to Warren. I had this crash-course education, so Zeiss was very influenced by reading Warren Ellis comics, really. It's comic book science fiction, the idea of a character who had been altered so that he could see his fights in freeze-frame while he's having them.
But the supervillain aspect of that story was more of an afterthought. The tragedy of Batman's friend coming back as a bad guy was really what the story was about, and if I hadn't been so concerned about the superhero aspect of it, I probably would've just had that be the story and have him be a criminal or something.
CA: That's really surprising to me. I'm a fan of your work, and one of the things I really like about it -- not just about Batman but throughout superhero comics -- is that you do these very noirish, very character-driven stories, but they're so superhero. You're the guy who brought Bucky back from the dead and made him a cyborg. You're the guy who finally did the Third Summers Brother!
EB: Yeah... [Laughs] I was assigned that, I'd like you to know. That wasn't my idea! I didn't even know there was supposed to be a third Summers brother! But yeah, it was easier for me to do the superhero stuff once I got to Marvel, because I was much more of a Marvel kid in the '70s and '80s. Other than Batman and the odd Legion of Super-Heroes story, I wasn't really that into DC Comics. I liked Batman a lot, and I grew up in a great era of Batman where you had Jim Aparo and Neal Adams, and Brave and the Bold was good and back issues were plentiful. You could go to comic book stores in San Diego, where Pacific Comics started, and find a lot of great old Batman back issues.
But like, my favorite DC Comics as a kid were always Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane. I was much more Marvel-inspired. Having absorbed all that stuff through my childhood, that's just ingrained. Stan Lee was my Shakespeare before my mom made me go see Shakespeare all the time. That stuff just becomes part of your DNA.
You think of a story and then it does become a superhero story, because you're bringing a guy back from the dead 50 years later and he still has to be young. How do you explain why he didn't get blown up? Well, he has a cyborg arm. You know? The stuff just starts falling together and you think, "This'll look great when Steve Epting draws it." Honestly, I feel like my whole career has been aided and abetted by the various artists I've worked with who have been able to ground the superhero stuff, so that the other tone, the noir, espionage, real-world tone comes through in amongst the superhero stuff. Which I'm sure I get from Steranko.
CA: I would love to spend the next hour talking about how much you love Jimmy Olsen, because that is something I did not expect, but there are three particular Batman stories from your run that I wanted to talk about. You were on Batman when Hush came along, so you were shifted over to Detective.
EB: Yeah, the first thing I did on Detective was a story called "Dead Reckoning," which is a story that I ended up pretty disappointed with. I think it was the artist's first job in comics, and I was not super happy with that. I remember that I'd already written the first few issues, and I thought they were the best Batman scripts I'd ever done, and I didn't feel like this artist could handle the job, that he wasn't ready for that big of a book. Which was just confirmed as pages came in every issue, and he was clearly struggling, and leaving stuff out so he didn't have to draw so much detail.
And that was really tough on me, because I was really pleased with that story, which was a new take on the second Two-Face, the guy from the '50s. After Harvey Dent had been cured, there was a guy named Paul Sloane who was playing Harvey Dent in a movie about Two-Face.
CA: Yeah, I wanted to talk about "Dead Reckoning," because that's actually one of my favorite things you've written.
EB: Oh... Okay.
CA: It really is, because it's one of those stories where it's a modern sequel to a story from 1954, and it's a murder mystery unless you spend all your time reading old Batman comics, in which case you know exactly what's going on. [Laughs]
EB: Yeah, I did another sequel to an old one in Batman with McDaniel, too. The story about Bruce Wayne's dad dressing up as Batman for Halloween. I really liked touching on the history while adding to it, which is something that I clearly did in Captain America, too. But yeah, anything you can write that gets you back to the primal heart of the world that you're writing in, especially in superhero comics, echoing things that came before can be a good way to remind yourself to stick to the heart of the story. As long as you're not just doing the same story again.
CA: The interesting thing about "Dead Reckoning" is that it's very much rooted in the Paul Sloane story, but it also has this big supervillain cast. Penguin, Riddler, Two-Face and Joker are all in it, and it's running at the same time as Hush, where the main selling point is that it's Batman versus all your favorites.
EB: That's true. I remember thinking, "Well, they've got Jim Lee and Jeph Loeb on Batman, probably the two biggest names in comics at that point, doing their big, over-the-top version of Batman. There's no way I can compete with that." I didn't even know who my artist was going to be, so I just decided I'd write a big mystery story that has all these same characters, but approaches it from a completely different angle. All dark and creepy and small. Character-driven.
And, you know, had I gotten Michael Lark or Pat Zircher -- who did my next arc on Detective -- to draw it, I think I'd be a lot prouder of it. I always look back on that story as the one that got away. So it's funny that it's your favorite, because all I can think is that it would be even more your favorite if it had been drawn by Michael Lark and you could see the story the way I pictured it in my head as I wrote it.