Mike W. Barr On Batman: The Comics Alliance Interview, Part One
With a run on Detective Comics in the late ’80s that includes some of the best Batman stories of all time and other work that includes Son of the Demon and the co-creation of Batman and the Outsiders, it’s no exaggeration to say that Mike W. Barr is one of my all-time favorite writers. Recently, he returned to Batman alongside artist Tom Lyle for a three-part tale of Batman, Robin and deathtraps in DC’s digital-first Legends of the Dark Knight, and ComicsAlliance decided to mark the occasion with an extended interview about his long history with Batman.
Today, in part one of the interview, Barr discusses Son of the Demon, the importance of Robin, and his views on whether or not the Batman should kill his enemies.
ComicsAlliance: I don’t want to make you feel old, but you wrote the very first comic I ever read.
Mike W. Barr: Which one was that?
CA: It was DC Comics Presents #83, with Superman, Batman and the Outsiders. The thing that really sticks with me about it to this day, and that I think has influenced what I’m obsessed with as a comics reader to this day, is that this very much a contemporary story, but it’s a sequel to an arc from 1964, where Alfred is presumed dead and becomes a villain named the Outsider. I was wondering if you had any memories of why you wanted to do that story, and whether it was just that you couldn’t resist having the Outsiders fight the Outsider.
MWB: Yes, that was one of the things I used to sell the story to Julie Schwartz. Julie, of course, loved the… I don’t want to say they were “gimmick stories,” but he loved it when a story had a theme to it. I sold it to him as the Outsiders versus the Outsider, and he loved that. Of course, I was familiar with all those stories from when I was a kid, and he knew them too, and the version of Alfred as the Outsider had returned a number of times over the years, so we thought we could get one more story out of it, at least.
CA: That leads into one of the things I really like about your run on Detective Comics with Alan Davis. Looking back at those stories, you came in 1985, and at the time, it felt like a lot of the Batman writers — and this is especially true after you left Detective — were trying to move toward this very dark, Frank Miller-style version of the character. Your stories, though, are very influenced by those ’50s and ’60s comics. Davis even did those big Silver Age style title pages on page one. At a time when other creators seemed to be embarrassed by that side of Batman’s history, you were the guy bringing it all back in a way that I really like.
MWB: Oh, well thank you. I always thought that sort of mood to the story was a vital part of Batman. I think Batman has become too grim over the years. I’m certainly not saying there’s not darkness to the man and his universe, because of his origin, primarily, but as you said in one of your columns, Batman can be a great deal of fun. And he should be a great deal of fun, especially if you bring Robin into it.
A lot of people don’t see the need for Robin. A couple of writers who really ought to know better have said that Batman does not need Robin. I have always maintained that Robin is an integral part of the strip and an integral part of the series’ longevity.
CA: In the first email you sent me, I noticed you didn’t refer to your Detective Comics stories. You called them “Batman and Robin” stories.
MWB: That’s what they were. I always tried to make sure that the logo in the Detective Comics stories was always the classic “Batman with Robin, the Boy Wonder” logo, because Robin, to me, is part of the story.
CA: With all that’s happened over the past 30 years with Jason Todd, it’s interesting to go back and look at your stories, where you play him as a much more innocent character that has a very father-and-son relationship. He’s much more like a classic Robin.
MWB: I think the darker aspects to Jason Todd with his origin and the Two-Face relationship came in a little later. I reference those in the Two-Face story that Jim Baikie did at the end of my run on Detective, but I don’t think that was in there at the beginning. I think they sort of retconned that in there a little later. I believe it was Max Allan Collins in his run on Batman, but I could be wrong on that.
CA: That’s another issue that goes back to an earlier Batman story, the Two-Face issue with Paul Sloane, who ended up coming back again during Ed Brubaker’s run on Detective.
MWB: That storyline came from me going back to at least the ’50s. It came from the very first Two-Face story that I ever read, which was reprinted in Batman Annual #3, way back in like 1963 or ’64.
CA: Oh, where they swapped out the original panel because it was too violent.
MWB: Yes! The fact that a character in the courtroom threw acid into Paul Sloane’s face. The Comics Code, which had been initiated since that story originally took place, called that “imitable behavior,” behavior that could be imitated. They thought little brothers would be trying that on their little sisters or something like that.
CA: So that was a story you read as a kid and held onto all those years?
MWB: Yes, the first Two-Face story I ever read. You could say that doing a sequel to that story was fairly self-indulgent, but in the end, I think we got a good sequel out of it.
CA: Was there any resistance at the time to doing that kind of story? Like I said, you’re the only guy in that era bringing stuff back, in an era where DC was throwing a lot of the older stuff away wholesale.
MWB: No, Denny O’Neil was always open to those kinds of stories, as long as you set up what was going on. I was always good at that, so Denny never had a problem with it.
CA: That’s true. You had a lot of big successes with Batman. Batman and the Outsiders was really well received, but Son of the Demon was probably the big one. It’s an interesting story, and one that came back in a pretty unexpected way with Morrison.
MWB: You’re telling me!
CA: [Laughs] We’ll get to that in a second. For now, Denny O’Neil was editing those books and was also the co-creator of Ra’s al-Ghul and Talia, so how did you approach him with that idea? “I want to have Batman and Talia getting married and having a son that survives the end of this book in secret.”
MWB: The graphic novel took a fair amount of time to come about, because it was such a long story. Denny O’Neil was actually not involved in that as the editor. Dick Giordano was the editor, and it was in the pipe by the time Denny and I were doing Detective, I believe. I always told Denny “you should look into this because I guarantee you’re going to want to know what’s happening in this story,” but I don’t think he ever did until someone pretty much handed him a Xeroxed copy of the finished book and what was in there.
CA: What was his reaction?
MWB: I don’t know, because he never told me. I have heard stories, and this is hearsay, I’ll admit, but I’ve heard it from a number of sources, that Denny very much disapproved of what I’d done with Batman and Talia. Not only getting them married, which was done as a sequel to one of his stories, but also having a child, which he had absolutely forbidden.
CA: Was your original intent to ever bring the child back?
MWB: Oh, yes. I had plans for a sequel in which both Batman and Ra’s al-Ghul learn almost at the same time that this child exists, so each of them is in a pitched battle to find the child and influence his growth, of course.
CA: The idea of giving Batman an actual son, not an orphan that he’s taken in, as he has several times…
MWB: Right. A biological son.
CA: Was that something that seemed like a natural progression from having Robin? I’m curious as to whether there was resistance to it, and what your intentions were there.
MWB: As I was working on the plot of the story, originally, I had the concept of Talia getting pregnant and then losing the child in some pitched battle, when she was injured in some conflict at the end of the story. But then I realized that as soon as Talia says “I’m pregnant,” the reader, knowing how little permanent change there is in comic books, is going to be waiting for the moment where she says later on in the story “I’ve lost the baby.” They’re going to be waiting for it, they expect that, so she does say that and the reader, at that point, kind of figures “okay, I knew that was coming, that’s fine.” Then, at the end of the story, she was lying about that. She does have the child.
I thought that would be a double-punch that the reader would never forget, and I don’t think any reader ever has forgotten it.
CA: It’s a really effective storytelling technique. There are so many ways to interpret it. You can read it as Talia wanting to get her child away from being involved in this crazy world of assassins and crime fighters.
CA: Or you can give her more villainous motivations for wanting to hide her child from Batman. I read it as a teenager and I was always waiting for it to come back, and it was obviously a huge influence on what Morrison did, even though Damian Wayne ended up having a completely different origin story. I remember that DC reprinted Son of the Demon when Damian first appeared, in a really inexpensive format to get it into the hands of more readers. What was your reaction at the time, of that story finally being acknowledged and brought back in a completely different way than you’d intended?
MWB: At first, I was a little angry. I don’t know how much you know about the actual path of that story, but I was told, when the story was first published in 1987, that there were Warner executives in Burbank, California that were extremely angry over Son of the Demon and the fact that this child did exist, and they told Jenette Kahn to never use that child again. Jenette Kahn herself called me and told me that if that child ever appeared again in a story, she would be fired. I don’t know how much of that I believe, even to this day, but basically we were told to never use that child ever again, he does not exist in continuity anymore.
So later on, of course, not long after in Kingdom Come, Mark Waid and Alex Ross did a chapbook or a book of sketches where they identified this character as being created by Jerry Bingham and me, which I was very grateful for. Alex is a good guy, and was a good guy to have done that. Then there was a spin-off called Son of the Bat by Mark Waid and Brian Apthorp where they were allowed to use that character. Everyone was allowed to use that character but Jerry and me, so it was very frustrating.
Still later on, when the Grant Morrison run came along, I was at first angry that they were allowed to do this story when Jerry and I weren’t, but then it occurred to me that to be fair, Grant obviously had no idea of the continuity minefield he’d run into. Grant had no idea of the previous circumstances of the story and just thought “okay, this is open game,” and did a very fascinating take in his own right, and because he’s Grant Morrison, no one told him he couldn’t. This seemingly eternal ban on the character had expired. I would have appreciated it if Grant had consulted me, asked me if I was done with the character, but that’s not the way work-for-hire comics work, because they don’t have to.
CA: That’s interesting, because Year Two, a comic that I’ve written about and that we’ve spoken about…
MWB: [Laughs] Yes, you have.
CA: It’s kind of the same way. It happened and was a big deal at the time, with Todd McFarlane coming in, was also removed from continuity. It’s referenced several times between the late ’90s and 2006 or so that Batman never found out who killed his parents.
MWB: Oh, really? That’s news to me. I was not aware of that. I know there’s always been a portion of Batman creators who thought that for Batman to have collared Joe Chill would take away his motivation to be Batman. People said the same thing after the first Batman movie. In the movie, the Joker kills Batman’s parents, and then later on Batman catches the Joker, so they thought that would do the same thing and take away his motivation.
I never believed that, but if that’s the way they’re playing it now, whatever.
CA: I feel like Joe Chill isn’t a necessary element. I don’t mind there being a guy who killed Batman’s parents, but I feel like it doesn’t matter as much if it was this specific guy than that there was just a criminal who did it, so Batman fights criminals.
MWB: I think you’re right, there. It doesn’t matter to his own personal motivation for being Batman one bit. I just thought it was great dramatics for Batman to team up and join forces with the man who killed his parents, when Batman knows that’s the man who killed his parents.
CA: You’ve talked about pitching these stories, was that the line you used to pitch Year Two?
MWB: That was certainly the dramatic angle I used to sell it to Denny. Basically the conflict of Batman hating this man, but at the same time having to team up with him to deal with a greater menace, which was the Reaper in Gotham City.
CA: The Reaper is really fascinating to me, as someone who loves Batman and the history of Gotham City. The idea that there was a violent vigilante in Gotham City before Batman is really intriguing. When you introduced him, did you want to establish that there was this vigilante tradition in Gotham that Batman was a part of?
MWB: No, that was not part of my thinking on it, but it turns out Alan Brennert did a story somewhere that Joe Staton drew that used the Reaper, having him come into a conflict with the original Green Lantern. He was originally in a city called Gotham, although he and the Golden Age Batman never crossed paths there at all. That wasn’t the way they did things back in those days, but Alan tied that all together as sort of a history of vigilantes. I never thought of it as a history, but as Batman possibly continuing the Reaper’s crime-fighting in Gotham, but not being as brutal or as violent. Batman was more of a benign force than the Reaper was.
CA: It’s interesting to bring that up, because, correct me if I’m wrong on this one, as a fan of your work, you seem to have a… more cavalier attitude towards Batman killing people.
MWB: Well… maybe. Yes.
MWB: I’ll say yes to that, in the sense that the official line is Batman doesn’t kill. I agree that Batman does not kill in cold blood, he does not kill for the joy of it, certainly, but once in a while, Batman says that the only way to get rid of this guy and to save lots of innocent people is for this particular adversary to die.
CA: I feel like we could argue about that for hours.
MWB: Oh, I’m sure we could.
CA: Do you think that lessens the heroism at all, or that it makes it more realistic and appealing? Why?
MWB: I don’t think it makes it more realistic, although it might give it the illusion of realism. It makes Batman almost more of a Christ figure, in that he’s taking on the burden of having to rid Gotham City of this person, knowing the moral toll that it will have on him eventually. He takes it on himself knowing that it’ll be better for Gotham City in the long run.
CA: It comes up in… I don’t want to say a lot of your stories, because as you said, it’s very occasional. But there’s Batman Annual #8 with the story “Messiah of the Crimson Sun,” and that’s a weird one. Batman goes to space and ends up blasting Ra’s al-Ghul with a heat laser and sending his ashes out into the vacuum.
MWB: Yeah. In a way, that was like a James Bond story.
CA: It’s very Moonraker.
MWB: Yes, and that was deliberate. I remember talking to Dick Giordano, the editor, and saying “Dick, the way this is going, it looks like we’re going to have to send Batman into space. Is that okay with you?” Dick thought it over and said “yeah, that’s okay, as long as that does not become the dominant element of the story, as long as he doesn’t become a science fiction hero like Adam Strange.”
CA: What was the reaction from Giordano and O’Neil to Batman killing? There’s the story from Detective Comics #572, “The Doomsday Book,” where a guy pulls an uzi on Batman and Batman uses another thug as a human shield. Was there any pushback to that, or was it the direction they were going?
MWB: I never got any pushback about it. Denny never questioned me about it, and I would’ve changed it if he’d asked me to. But he never asked me to, and nobody else in the office ever gave me negative feedback on that either. Although, if there had been negative feedback on that, I’m not the guy who would’ve gotten it. They would’ve told Denny about it, and he would’ve told me. That’s the way that kind of thing flows through the proper order, they talk to the editor and the editor talks to the writer.
CA: It’s interesting to look at because on the one hand, you have these stories that are very classically styled, and on the other hand, you have these stories of Batman killing the bad guy.
MWB: Right. Or like the Mad Hatter story in Detective, which looks like it’s going to come to a happily-ever-after resolution, and then it cuts to Robin lying on a rooftop, bleeding to death.
CA: [Laughs] Right. Was that an idea from your childhood? You were a fan of comics growing up, were you reading and going “oh, Batman should just kill this guy and be done with it.”
MWB: Oh, no. I knew, even in those days, that Batman would never allow anyone to come to that kind of harm, although occasionally villains or criminals did die through their own means. But Batman never killed anyone in those days, not since the early 1940s. There’s that famous panel from Batman #1, where Batman says “as much as I hate to take human life, this time it’s necessary.” Pretty quickly thereafter, we saw that it was never necessary for Batman.
CA: I ask because your run came at such an interesting time, where you can see so many different forces pulling at Batman. There’s Frank Miller doing Year One, and Jim Starlin wanting to go really dark in stories like The Cult, and you’re doing the classic style stories with arch-criminals and schemes and deathtraps. Did you know when you were working on them, or was there a sense then, that this was going to be an important time in the character’s history?
MWB: I don’t know that there was that sense. I just felt like this was the right time to bring back that kind of Batman story, and Denny O’Neil agreed. I sat down and talked to Denny before I began writing the book and said “this is the kind of story I want to do, how do you feel about it?” Since no one had done what you might call the “classic” Batman and Robin stories for a long time, Denny thought it was a good idea to get back to that tradition.
Join us tomorrow for Part Two of the interview, where we discuss Batman and the Outsiders, the new story with Tom Lyle, and Barr’s pick for the best Batman story of all time.