Wait’ll They Get A Load Of Me: Jerry Ordway On The Making Of His Batman ’89 Comic Book Adaptation [Interview]
The Batmania of 1989 affected all of commercial entertainment, but perhaps nowhere was the impact felt more than in comic shops and bookstores. The wild success of Tim Burton’s movie drove fans to seek out anything Bat-related, and DC Comics was prepared. The publisher had tasked two of its finest creators with producing a comic book adaptation of the film, and Jerry Ordway and Dennis O’Neill’s comic became a sensation in its own right. The book was released in two editions (a ‘floppy’ for newsstands, and a squarebound edition for the book and comic shop market), and both became instant best-sellers.
While the project was perhaps not altogether successful in creative terms, the Batman ’89 comic adaptation is nevertheless one of if not the most proliferated comics of its type, occupying space in the collections of a whole generation of readers all over the world and fondly remembered as featuring some of Ordway’s most exquisite artwork in an already very distinguished career. As part of ComicsAlliance’s exhaustive remembrance of of all things Batman ’89, we spoke with Ordway about his fascinating and uniquely challenging experience adapting the silver-screen superhero epic back into uncommonly beautiful book form.
Comics Alliance: How did you end up working on the Batman movie adaptation?
Jerry Ordway: As anyone around comics at that time knows, the movie news was everywhere, and we all were excited by the cast announcements, and of course, the director. A while before the news was public, [then DC President] Jenette Kahn had told us that the director of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure was Warner Bros.’ pick to do Batman, so we all studied that film to see how this was going to work. The film had an amazing visual style, and while a comedy it had a lot of emotional weight.
So anyhow, flash forward a few years, and I found myself at the big comic show in London, in October of 1988. While there, I got to visit the Batman sets before filming began, courtesy of my now-wife, who worked in DC publicity. I got to see the Batmobile up close, the rubber Batman suit, the various sets… I was floored.
When I got back home, I was telling my pal, Jonathan Peterson (a DC editor) about it all, and he lobbied to be the editor of the comic adaptation, being a huge movie fan. No one wanted anything to do with movie adaptations, really, so I doubt he had to fight anyone on staff. So he and I were talking about various movie comics that were good, and how many were pretty awful. The challenge, and key, was to capture the movie experience, which required permissions for actors’ likenesses. So many movie comics didn’t use likenesses because they are an extra level of approval from the film production people, and also the actors – PLUS, the artist had to be capable of drawing likenesses effectively.
Well, next thing I knew, I was going to draw the book, and the actors’ likenesses were part of the deal. Early in 1989 I had to draw test drawings for Jack Nicholson, Michael Keaton and Kim Basinger, which, if they signed off, would constitute an approval for the whole project, which meant in the heat of deadlines we wouldn’t have to submit individual pages for approval. This was a one-time deal. I had to redo the Nicholson ones as he didn’t approve my first drawings, but after that everything was set. I had no contact with the actors, but I do have the photostat of the first Nicholson sheet, with a handwritten note on one face that said, “This does not look like me at all.” I have to assume that was written by Nicholson.
CA: How did the process of making the comic work? Denny O’Neil wrote the script, you were drawing it… was there much input from the studio? Were they sending over reference materials as the movie was being made?
JO: I believe, if memory serves, that I got Denny O’Neil’s comic script in February, and also started getting little boxes of 8×10 set stills, due to Jonathan’s diligence. At this point the comic had to be done and colored by April, and at 64 pages it was a big deadline! Jonathan reached out to Al Williamson to ink it, and he graciously declined. So I just took on the inks myself. I liked that idea of pencilling and inking my stuff; not passing off pencils to someone else to ink.
By the time I got a few pages into the book, drawing loose layouts with balloon placements, we found out the movie script we had was no longer being followed by the film production. Much of the later reference, after the Joker’s arrival onscreen, came in the form of contact prints as well as slides (which are much harder to use as reference, being so small). In studying them with a magnifying glass, we noticed that scenes were being shot that were not in the script, and Jonathan and I were unable to reconstruct where they might go in the comic.
At this point, Denny was too busy or maybe not interested in trying to revise the script, so he gave Jonathan and me blessing to do things ourselves to ensure the comic and movie were in sync. Since our project had a fixed deadline to go to press, I worked around the problem scenes and pages as best I could until we got info as to where the new scenes fit. That was quite a monkey wrench to throw into any comic. Up until I saw the early screening of the movie at the end of May, I had no idea if our comic would match the film, as we had to guess and make judgements on the end sequence in the bell tower of the cathedral. The bell tower and upper portion of the cathedral only existed as a production drawing, since there were a lot of matte shots and special effects involved with miniature models, which we never saw. At the end of the screening, Jonathan and I looked at each other with broad smiles, having succeeded about 95 percent!
CA: Of the other five percent, do you recall any particular places where the comic and movie didn’t match up?
JO: We’d included a scene with reporter Alexander Knox covered in the Bat-cape, allowing Batman and Vicki Vale to escape, which the movie cut. But we were glad it was in the comic, as it helped the scene. At the film opening in June, the sequence with the Joker in a helicopter, after Batman destroyed the chemical plant, was shortened, I think, due to the effect of the helicopter not looking that good.
CA: What were your impressions of the film itself?
JO: Seeing the movie, with the awesome score by Danny Elfman, was amazing. During the course of working on the comic, there was a behind-the-scenes tussle over using a soundtrack that Prince had done, versus the Danny Elfman score, and I am so happy the Elfman score accompanied the film. The Prince music was really fun, but it would have ruined the gothic mood of the movie if it was in there wall to wall. Warners released the Prince stuff in a separate CD set, with a round black bat-signaled metal case.
Another note: the last page of the comic, an iconic shot of Batman swinging over the city, was drawn out of sequence –much earlier, so that it could be used as the cover for the New York Daily News Sunday magazine, June 4 1989.
CA: Early screenings, the Daily News… Were there other unexpected benefits you discovered from working on the comic?
JO: As the movie gathered momentum, breaking box office records, Warner Bros. and DC realized a bit of a problem regarding additional licensing, in regards to actor’s likenesses. Apparently, the earlier sign off I had with the principal actors for the movie comic was the only likeness approval that existed for artwork depicting the actors in character. DC Licensing chose images from the comic and assembled a book of clip art, or a “style guide” for licensors. I was paid a nice fee and only had to fix or extend my art where a panel border in the comic might have cut off a foot or other body part, allowing DC’s licensing arm to capitalize on the enormous success of the film featuring their characters.
The movie comic sold hundreds of thousands of copies, was translated in many languages and appeared in territories that DC had not made inroads in before, such as Japan and the Middle East… And here we are, 25 years later! Happy anniversary!