Born In A World Of Tragedy: Greg Rucka Reflects On His Batman Work, Part One [Interview]
To say that Greg Rucka had a profound impact on DC Comics in the 21st Century is underselling things quite a bit. After arriving on the scene in the late ’90s, he became one of the few writers to have written all three of DC’s biggest characters, with critically acclaimed runs on Action Comics and Wonder Woman. It was on Batman, however, where he made his biggest impact, as one of the writers for the year-long No Man’s Land crossover, the relaunched “New Gotham” era of Detective Comics, and cowriter of the enduringly influential Gotham Central.
Today, we begin an in-depth look back at Rucka’s tenure on the Dark Knight, starting with No Man’s Land, both the comic and its surprisingly popular novelization, in which Gotham City becomes a dark dystopia following a cataclysmic earthquake; his feelings about the core idea of Batman; and his frustrations on seeing the Joker show up in the pages of Superman.
ComicsAlliance: I realized this after I asked you to do the interview, but it’s about fifteen years to the day that I started reading your work on Batman.
Greg Rucka: Oh my God, I think you’re right.
CA: I became a fan during No Man’s Land in the fall of 1999.
GR: My first stories were in the buildup, Cataclysm in 1998. I’m trying to remember, because ’99, we would’ve been writing the No Man’s Land stuff. I think it was late ’98 that I had the meeting with [editor] Denny O’Neil, and it all spilled out from there. I met with Denny, [editors] Jordan B. Gorfinkel and Darren Vincenzo, and Denny sent me back to Oregon going, “Well, write me a story. We’ll see.” And I wrote him a story, and the next thing I knew, I was writing a lot of stories.
No Man’s Land had been pitched and conceived, they’d already committed to it coming out of Cataclysm, but they were just starting to staff it. I showed up pretty much at the exact right moment to end up with a lot of work on my plate very quickly, because I was young and foolish, and so I wrote very quickly. I’m much slower fifteen years later, nowhere near as fast as I once was. All the sudden, I was part of the No Man’s Land thing, and there was a bundle of core writers for that, but somewhere along the line, I became the go-to guy after that initial arc. They just started tossing stuff my way, like “Okay, we haven’t figured this one out yet, give it to Greg.” That was, as they say, all she wrote.
CA: I remember reading the DC Comics Guide to Writing, which Denny O’Neil wrote, and there’s a lot of stuff in there about organizing stories. He starts off with the three-act structure for a single issue, and then moves on to arcs, and eventually up to No Man’s Land, which he calls a “megaseries,” and how it was such a big undertaking. At the time it was the only story of its kind.
GR: I think that was the in-house name for it.
CA: It was essentially a fifty-two part series, plus the one-shots, the tie-ins from other books, and from his perspective as the guy editing it, it sounded like a really complicated thing to manage from the top. But for you, coming in as a new writer, did it feel like they were putting you in a place where it was heavily managed so they could try you out, or was it that they were putting a lot of trust in you to nail this big event that they’d built so much around?
GR: The dirty little secret is that it wasn’t tightly plotted, it was broadly plotted. They knew where it started and where it was going to end. My understanding is that the way No Man’s Land came about is that Jordan Gorfinkel, one of the editors under Denny at the time, had gone home one weekend, and I guess they knew they were going to do Cataclysm at the time, so he just started writing this overview for what would become No Man’s Land, and then came in on Monday and put it in front of Denny and said “Here’s an idea!” And Denny said, “This is insane! Let’s do it!”
So there were elements of it that they knew, certainly, in advance and in the micro, but that hadn’t been done beat-by-beat. It might say “In the third week, Superman’s going to show up and say ‘what’s going on here?’ We have to have the Superman beat.” There was a certain motion of the story that had been agreed upon. Obviously I’m only speaking from my own experience, but they brought us in shortly after the process had begun and Bob Gale had written the initial stories, and we had a couple days of meetings in the conference room. We broke down storylines and figured out where they were going to fit, and then we all went back to our separate cities and started typing. Some of the stuff, we’d see what other people were doing, some of the stuff, we wouldn’t.
I think we had three meetings over the course of that year, but the ending was sticking from almost the beginning. I remember going round and round about how it was going to end. We knew that we were going to have this New Gotham, we knew that it would resolve in a positive, but we did not know what the denouement story would be. This was in early 1999, which gives you the amount of lead time that we had — it ain’t like that no more. I remember Devin Grayson coming up, because we were cowriting a lot of stuff, and us being on the phone with Denny trying to figure out the last six issues, the arguments that we had.
It’s fifteen years, but I still feel like I should be leery about spoilers, but the arguments were about Sarah Essen. Sarah was not the choice. I did not want Sarah to perish. I was violently against it, and then when it came down that no, it’s going to have to be Sarah, trying to figure out how to make it work, and make it work in a way that was going to break people’s hearts, frankly.
Then, the final beat, saying this death has to mean something, trying to give it resonance and make some sort of alteration to some of these characters in some way. You couldn’t kill Joker. There’s no way to do that, he makes too much money! Nevermind that he’d be back the next week anyway. So we tried to give him an injury that he’ll carry forward, that will mark the story, and no sooner do we finish than he’s over in the Superman books with Jeph Loeb writing him, and he’s bouncing around as though he’d never been shot.
We were like “All right, well. That was worth a try.” Ah, comics.
CA: He never did keep that limp.
GR: No, which is a pity, because Sarah certainly f**king stayed dead, didn’t she? She didn’t come back. But far be it from anybody to go “hey, continuity, let’s try to observe it and maybe hold to it a little bit. Let’s see if the characters can’t change a little bit and grow.” Well, the answer was apparently some of them, but not that one.
CA: There’s a story that I believe Gail Simone wrote a couple years back, in Birds of Prey, I think…
GR: Ah, I think I recall this one.
CA: Oracle knocks the Joker’s teeth out so that he can’t smile, but then the last bit is “oh, they found a murdered dentist, so he probably got ’em fixed.”
CA: But you had a really unique job with No Man’s Land, in that you were writing the comics at the same time that you were writing the novelization.
GR: That’s a story in and of itself. The novelization couldn’t begin until we were well underway, and I think I wrote that whole novel in the course of maybe four or five weeks. And to make it worse, the novel had to be delivered to the publisher two or three months before we were done, which meant that I was writing an ending where we didn’t have the comic book scripts. We’d just locked certain things down, but there were other elements we didn’t know. The last 25,000 words of that novel were written in one sitting, the day before I had to fly out to New York.
That’s how long ago it was. I had to fly out to New York and bring the novel with me. I was on the plane with these claw hands, clutching this 500-page manuscript, god forbid something happen to it, just to get it in. But one of the things that the novel benefits from, and this is not to in any way, shape or form diminish the collaborative aspect of what was going on in the comics, but the novel ultimately came down to the story that I was telling. It benefits from having a novel’s focus, and being able to zero in and focus on specific storylines. As a result, I think it has even more emotional impact as a complete work than the comics do.
I think the No Man’s Land story as a whole, for what we were doing, we did it pretty darn well. I do feel that the ending is pretty effective, but I think the novel is better simply because I could get rid of things that weren’t needed. I could zero focus.
CA: I like No Man’s Land a lot, and it will not surprise you that I’ve read that novel four times.
GR: [Laughs] That, of all my novels, is the one that’s probably the most read. I don’t even know if it’s still in print, but I don’t do a show where someone doesn’t bring me that book. I don’t do a show where somebody doesn’t bring me that book and say “this was fantastic, I love this, I didn’t used to like reading and then I read this.” That’s just high praise, man.
CA: Well here’s the thing: Even at full cover price, that novel’s still cheaper than an entire year’s worth of comics.
GR: [Laughs] Yes, well.
CA: I didn’t come into No Man’s Land until halfway through, and I picked up that first paperback, but when they had the preview of the novel running in the comics towards the end, I thought that would be a great way to get the whole story. It’s a story that I really like, because it’s the perfect Batman story for 1999.
GR: Yes. It’s such a product of its era.
CA: It’s all Y2K fears. Your computer’s not gonna work, planes are going to fall out of the sky, it’s going to be the apocalypse! There was a lot of fear and paranoia that midnight on January 1, 2000, we were all going to be battling the Penguin for food.
GR: It was going to be the end of all civilization as we knew it. And it’s funny, because boy howdy does that not hold up. It didn’t quite happen that way.
CA: I think the story holds up, though. At its core, the idea is post-apocalyptic Batman, which is so fun.
GR: Yeah, it was the pre-dystopia craze dystopia. It was Batman in Mad Max, and it works. I’m in my office talking to you, and on my left is a Rick Burchett page from Legends of the Dark Knight #125. The whole issue is just Gordon and Batman in the garden. I am to this day stunned that we got away with that. Batman takes off his mask and Gordon tells him to put. It. Back. On. And stop treating him like an idiot. I’ve always felt that Gordon actively does not want to know.
CA: Your take in that issue is that Gordon doesn’t want to know, because if he does know Batman’s identity, then he’s compromised as a cop.
GR: He has to act.
CA: But there’s also the idea that Gordon knows, because Gordon’s smart. There’s that bit at the end of Year One where he goes “Oh, I don’t have my glasses on, Mysterious Stranger!”
GR: I’ve never for a moment said that Gordon wasn’t very, very smart. I think that it’s easy to forget that we as the reader are privy to all of the clues, and that if you are the commissioner of police in Gotham City, you’ve got a lot of other things to worry about before “Who is Batman?” If you make a priority list, that’s not at the top. What would be at the top might even be not finding out who he really is.
The rules in Gotham have to be different. I think there are certain questions that get asked in comics over and over again, and people want definitive answers, but I feel like there shouldn’t be definitive answers. I don’t want to know who killed Thomas and Martha Wayne. I don’t. Because if it turns out that it’s a guy named Joe Chill, then you are putting the entire Batman creation mythology into a different context. Because then the Joe Chill question has to be answered, right? You have to tell The Story, and it has to be told right and well, and you have to justify how, after any resolution to that mystery, to any attempt at justice or vengeance, why Batman continues to be Batman. The essence of Batman is that all the wealth, all the education, all the privilege of his family does not spare him from this horrible act of random violence.
And the key words there are “random” and “violence.” It could happen to anybody. The second you put a name to it, you’re putting a bow on it, and I think you end up in a place where you have to ask some really hard questions about Batman. You get into questions about vanity and ego that I think are dangerous because those ultimately lead to the very popular argument from the Tim Burton era, which is that Batman’s crazy. But he can’t be, because if he’s crazy then he’s not a hero. And he has to be a hero.
CA: A lot of people look at Batman through the lens of rationality rather than fantasy, but Batman lives in a world where what he’s doing is perfectly acceptable.
GR: And crucially, it’s acceptable because it’s selfless. The people who want to piss on it are the ones who go “well only a lunatic’s going to dress up like a bat at night and beat people up, he’s getting his kicks!” That’s not what he’s doing. What he’s doing is going out there every single Goddamn night to make sure that what happened to Bruce Wayne never happens to anybody else. That’s why he’s doing it.
Denny was fond of saying “We don’t ask why the Batmobile doesn’t get caught in traffic.” That is apparently the corollary to the Archie Goodwin saying about how the entire DC Universe is an inverted pyramid built on a secret identity that’s a pair of glasses. If you want to tear it apart, you can do so with ease. You’re not nearly as clever or smart as you think you are if you decide to go and nitpick it and tear it down, because there are loose threads everywhere. All that proves is that you’re a killjoy. [Laughs] If you want to take it apart, it’s very easy to do, but that’s not the point. You either accept the world you’re in or you don’t. If you do, you’re going to have a blast. If you don’t, you better find something else to read, because you’re going to be very unhappy.
CA: What would happen if comics fans were unhappy all the time, Greg? What kind of horrible nightmare world would that be?
GR: It’s a different kind of misery, right? Comic fans, not all of them, I hasten to add, but there’s a subsection of comics fans that I’m convinced are masochists. They will religiously shell out twenty, thirty, fifty, a hundred bucks a month now on books that they hate, that they read and they’re miserable. It hurts them to read them but they’re still paying for the privilege. I don’t understand that.
CA: It’s very rude of you to talk about me like this in the middle of an interview.
GR: [Laughs] If you’re a completionist, I can understand that. But I feel very strongly that if you don’t like what’s going on in a title or with a character, nuts to your collection, man, stop buying it. The only time they’re going to change anything is if they see the numbers going down. That’s the only time.
CA: You’re obviously a Batman fan, and you came to the books as a fan. But as a writer, and coming form a background as a novelist, did you find that you got a better handle on the characters writing the comics, or writing the novelization? Because you write everyone in the novelization; you write Bruce, you write Barbara Gordon, Jim Gordon, you write Bane, you write all the villains.
GR: Yeah, absolutely. I’ll tell you the hard one in that book, and he’s always been the hard one, is Joker. Every other character, I can find a way into them. I can see the world the way they see it. I can twist the perception. Bruce’s is easy. I get Bruce. One of the beauties of Batman, one of the ironies, is that he is so elegantly simple. He’s very hard to write badly. You may disagree with choices that are made with him, but he’s very hard to screw up. He’s been so well-defined and so elegantly defined by, sincerely, so many brilliant writers and artists over the years that you really have to try to foul it up. You have to either come in with contempt, and that’s happened, or phone it in, and that’s happened, but if you’re paying attention and your eye is on the ball at all, you should be able to deliver a really good Batman.
You should be able to do the same, I feel, with Gordon. You should be able to do the same thing with somebody like Two-Face. That origin, that motivation is so clear. Even Bane, if you look at who he’s supposed to be, you should be able to get into his mindset. But the nature of Joker is that you should never be able to get into the mindset. He’s the Other in the absolutely worst possible ways. I think I wrote Harley Quinn’s POV. I wrote Harley so that I wouldn’t have to write Joker, because I think getting into Joker’s head runs the risk of making him mundane. You don’t want to understand him. There are certain characters that I don’t think we should ever spend a lot of time inside the heads of, because that would ruin who they are.
What’s the Joker’s motivation? I remember talking to Paul Dini about it, I actually asked Denny to put me in touch with him because I love the way Dini wrote the Joker, and Dini was saying, “He wants to make Batman laugh. That’s what he’s after.” And that didn’t work for me. If he really wants to make Batman laugh, he’s not going to be murdering people. That’s the difference between interpretations of Harley and the Joker in Batman: The Animated Series that [Alan] Burnett, Dini and [Bruce] Timm did, and the comics.
This was one of the reasons why, when Harley was introduced in No Man’s Land, because that was her introduction in [comic book] continuity, there were some real big arguments about whether or not she should be there. It’s one thing for Harley Quinn to be in love with a Joker who never actually kills anybody than it is for her to be in love with the Joker who’s a mass-murdering psychopathic bastard.
CA: The guy in “Be A Clown” is not exactly the guy in “Death in the Family.” There’s a difference in scale.
GR: Right, we have a disconnect. Or, more to the point, the guy who does “Be A Clown” is not the guy who shows up in Gotham Central.
CA: That’s interesting, because unless I’m forgetting something, you don’t do a Joker story for your entire time on Detective. You didn’t do a Joker story from the end of No Man’s Land to “Soft Targets” in Gotham Central, my favorite Joker story of all time, which is, what, six years later?
GR: Yep, and that was very intentional. The other problem was that everybody was using him! The Batman rogues gallery is certainly the best rogues gallery of any DC character, and like I said. We finished No Man’s Land, and he was over in the Superman books! That’s what was going on, over in the Superman books. They were poaching Batman villains. Think about that.
He was so overexposed and so overused that I promised myself I wasn’t going to use him. He has to cool. And I would get very steamed every time someone else would roll him out, it was like “For God’s sake, put him down! Just put him down!” It was like that period over at Marvel where you’d sneeze and Wolverine was in every title. Wolverine and Power Pack! Are you kidding me?
CA: Hey, that Wolverine and Power Pack book is great.
GR: Just because it was executed well does not mean it was necessary. [Laughs] The rogues gallery is phenomenal here. There are so many great characters, because one of the things that makes Batman fantastic is that Batman is tragic. I’ve said this elsewhere, I’ve said it over and over again, but the beauty of the character is that he’s a Don Quixote. He’s going out every night and he’s going to fail every night, and he’s going to keep doing it because somebody is going to be in danger somewhere and he’s not going to get there in time. He’s going to be up in the North End of Gotham and somebody’s going to get shot down in Tricorner, and that’s the way it is.
He’s not crazy, he’s not a fool. He knows this. But the battle is worth it, and the pathos of that is profound. And speaking as a dramatist, as one who writes stories, pathos is… the Greeks lived to create it for a reason, and that pathos in Batman infects everything in that universe. It touches Gordon, it touches Alfred, it radiates out to the villains. The beauty of that rogues gallery is that almost to the last of them, there’s a moment in that origin where you look at who they could’ve been and why they turned away from it, and you understand why they turned away. You may not agree with it, but you understand.
You look at them and you go “Wow, if I went through what Pam Isley went through, I’d kind of want to associate only with plants too.” “If I went through what Victor Fries went through, I’d kind of have it in for all these happy, shiny people.” “If I was Oswald Cobblepot, cursed with the fact that I was beyond ugly and that the world is so shallow that they will never get past that, but I’m the smartest guy in the room, the wittiest guy in the room, the most educated guy in the room, I’m the last Renaissance Man, and people go quack quack quack when I walk by and think I don’t hear, or maybe because they know I’ll hear? You’re damn right I’m going to take this umbrella and jab you with the poison tip!” [Laughs]
With the exception of the Joker. You can argue the Red Hood origin or not, but that’s what works about him, I think. You have all this pathos, and then you have the crazy thing. The thing that’s not understandable.
Geoff Johns tried to invest the Flash rogues with that, and one could argue that he did a good job of it, but there’s a reason that the Batman rogues are held up as high as they are. They come from that source, they’re all born in this world of tragedy.