You Make Rules That You Cannot Break, And Then You Break Them: Scott Snyder And Declan Shalvey On ‘All Star Batman’ And ‘The Cursed Wheel’ [Interview]
The lead story in All Star Batman has been getting a lot of attention for the over-the-top action of Batman and Two-Face on a road trip that finds them pit against bad guys like Gentleman Ghost and the KGBeast. And look, I'm not saying that Batman dismantling the Black Spider's arms with a chainsaw and then riding off in an 18-wheeler isn't something we should be talking about, but it's important that we don't overlook the backup story either, where Scott Snyder, Declan Shalvey, and Jordie Bellaire are putting Batman's newest ally through a training program called the Cursed Wheel.
ComicsAlliance spoke to Snyder and Shalvey about how they've developed Duke Thomas as a character set apart from Batman's family of sidekicks, the striking visuals of the Cursed Wheel, and the challenges of showing us what Gotham City looks like in daylight.
ComicsAlliance: Let's start with Duke. He was introduced back in Zero Year, and has obviously grown to become a pretty big part of the Batman family, culminating in his current role in All Star Batman. Was that always the plan for him?
Scott Snyder: It wasn't always the plan. There's an undertow in Gotham when you create a character who's just a normal person who becomes a popular foil for Batman, to pull them into the superhero, cape-and-cowl stuff. That happened with Harper Row in a way that I was really happy with, but I didn't have the capacity to also shepherd that character, I think, into a book. Now, she's got a very good role coming up in Detective Comics and Birds of Prey, a couple of other things where I really like where she's landing.
With Duke, once that conversation started to get real with DC, when they were saying "We really like him, he's been in a couple of stories, is there a place for him," and we discussed the possibilities, there were some that were very aggressive. Do you jump a year forward in all the stories and make him Nightwing or Robin, or whatever?
James Tynion IV, Mark Doyle and I were very opposed to that; we wanted to make sure that if we make room for him, that his character and his superhero identity can be really built off of the things that make him special, and that he has the time and room to grow in that regard, and feel like a character who's really seeded in the way that we fell in love with the characters of the past, the ones that were grown slowly in the Bat books as allies to Bruce.
Here, it was very much about that. For me, I think, there were qualities from the very beginning, from the first time that we see him in Zero Year, that being a Robin, or an ally of Batman, can be independent of Batman's influence. It's about how you affect other people, and there's a separation of his heroism and Batman's that's always been very interesting to me. There's the mission that he's leaning into that has to do with seeing people by daylight, where we're trying to hint at where he's going to land.
It's hard. You want to create a place that's new, you know? I want to make sure that I can be a part of the first stories that we tell with him, too, to give him a good landing spot, and make sure that if he never appears in anything again past that initial launch, that I can at least make sure that I'm a part of it. I do think he has a bright future, and I hope that other writers will pick him up once we land at the end of All Star.
CA: You talked about Duke operating in daylight, and that comes up a lot when you talk about Batman's sidekicks. I was wondering how that shaped your approach to the visuals, Declan? He's obviously got that bright costume, but there are a lot of panels where we see him in these bright white backgrounds, operating in sunlight. I wanted to know how you and Jordie Bellaire approached doing that with him.
Declan Shalvey: Yeah, there's the splash page where he's on the bike, where I'm like, "How am I gonna draw Gotham City in the day?" I'd never, ever thought of doing that before. I always imagined it dark. I was going to have to pay more to architecture and create an identity that wasn't just shadow.
But I feel that whenever you have an approach to something, you create a set of rules that you cannot break, and then you break them. Making those rules stops you from losing the sense of direction. Gotham is dark, Gotham is moody, there's no color. What I like about this arc is that Gotham is dark, but there's a crapload of colors. Gotham is moody, but we have this big open day scene. I wanted to make sure that when these moments happen, they have impact, and the best way to do it is, well, Scott did it for me by giving me that splash page.
And I never need to worry about Jordie. 100% of the time, whatever I give her, she just elevates. I don't think it's any coincidence that I've been working in comics for years, and when Jordie and I started working together, everyone started taking notice of my work. She elevates the quality of the work and the thought and consideration in what she does makes everything better and more interesting.
But as much as I'd love to take credit for everything, Scott has a deftness. It's not a directorial authorship over what something has to be, but I always appreciate when a writer has a visual idea. The best comic writers do, they're not just writing an aborted screenplay, and I always try to work with that, because I always appreciate it when it's there.
CA: That brings us to talking about "The Cursed Wheel" itself. It's a new thing in a lot of ways. We've seen Batman train sidekicks before, but the idea of presenting this weirdly condensed version that takes bits and pieces from Nightwing, from Damian, from Batgirl, and so on, and puts them together, is something new. It's presented in a very ominous way, but there's also definitely a striking visual idea to it and how it's represented with the colors of the story. Can you talk a bit about the development of that idea?
SS: Ultimately, what we really want is to make a giant Batman Voltron thing out of all of them. That would be really, really good.
SS: If only, right? If only. No, where it came from was the challenge of trying to find a spot for a new character who had things to him that I think we haven't seen before. For example, with Harper, the thing I liked best about her is that she had no desire to see what was under the mask of any hero she admired, because she felt like people let you down. The way she would operate as a crimefighter was always that she'd listen to the radio signals and appear, but she'd never want to be in the cave, never want to know that Batman was Bruce. That led itself to a really interesting dynamic.
Here, with Duke, I think he has a whole different set of priorities. It was about figuring out where he fits, and I started talking to editorial a couple years ago about him, and they were asking where he fits in. They put the other characters on the board, and I just saw this spectrum.
The costume I was leaning towards was yellow, because of some of the personality traits he has. His mother's a social worker, who really believes that she has her best luck with difficult cases when she goes out first thing in the morning and looks at people in the hard light of day, the unforgiving light. So there were elements that felt like he had this yellow quality to him. Here's red, what does red represent? Is there a way to put him through all of this to differentiate him, and also strengthen the idea of how Batman's allies each represent a special mission or project in Gotham, from Jason to Tim to Damian to Kate to Steph to Dick, and all of them.
It was a lot of fun developing that with editorial and all the other writers, and finding a place that might be one more sliver on that wheel for Duke.
DS: It was great to be able to always remember that comics are a visual medium. In Chapter 3, when we see Duke's family, I really love that panel where Duke's mom wakes him up and we cut to that panel of a television screen with the color code. I love that you can say something about character in just a bar of color.
CA: Was there a lot of discussion on how to represent that visually, or did you just hear, "Yeah, it's a wheel with colors representing all of the sidekicks" and run with it?
DS: Scott left it fairly vague. He was clear about what it was and what it meant, but also we didn't want to reveal it straightaway. Also, you can't really plan too much ahead of time. Sometimes I might think of something with Jordie. You can have a more elaborate plan that doesn't necessarily always work. I don't know if you have that with other stories, Scott, where you have a plan that, through the nature of the work, has to change.
SS: [Laughs] It never changes. You just make the plan and everyone has to stick through it. No, it changes radically! That's the fun of it.
I agree 100%. One of the things with the wheel, one of the reasons I wanted to leave the nature of it a little mysterious, is because it doesn't feel right for it to be a Wheel of Fortune, like, "Where do you land on the magic wheel?" It's more complicated and more amorphous than that. What it speaks to is this idea that you find yourself somewhere on this spectrum of psychology, of heroism, of human failings, and where you land makes you special for Gotham.
The visualization of the wheel was less important to me, although I wanted to make it mysterious and ominous and big, than the use of color that I think Dec and Jordie brought so brilliantly to the story. You can see where black punctuates the story. He usually uses white borders, but uses black borders in these issues, and the way that Jordie was able to highlight color in the background constantly, the bolts of fabric and the way they block out the image at times, the idea of the color coordinator on the television at the beginning and end of #3, that sense of color being a living, important part of the story both emotionally and thematically, is something that was more important to me. I knew that these two as a pair would bring the story to a level that was really unparalleled.
DS: I think it makes for more interesting storytelling. Scott, you're clearly able to talk about the story and clearly able to write about this stuff, but there are other writers who would over-elaborate on trying to describe this story instead of telling the story with images. Images engage your brain more than just words in this kind of storytelling, especially when it's paired with the main story, which is more bombastic and full of adrenaline. It's fun to pull back and be more subtle, and let the story drip in.
SS: Yeah, I think in some ways, the fun of the story is that being on the grind of Batman for so many years with Greg [Capullo] was the ride of a lifetime. I'm very proud of that and I'm excited to work with him again in the summer, but All Star was designed as a place where, sell or not sell, I wanted to work with artists who were friends and inspirations, who would challenge me to write better and in different ways than I had before on a character who has that elasticity.
Getting to think about something like color wasn't necessarily something l did on the main series besides telling FCO Plascencia, "Here's the feeling of the whole arc, go to town." But here, knowing how important color was specifically to Declan and Jordie, and how Declan is such an architectural artist when it comes to how he lays out a story emotionally; he designs the pages so beautifully and expressively, and there's a kind of mass to them that I think is filled in by Jordie's incredibly radiant palette. It made me think in regards to the story in ways that I hadn't before, how to use color, and also just panel design, like for the beginning of #2 when we see that huge collage that's a picture of his face made of pictures of their life together.
I wouldn't have thought of that with other artists. It's one of the joys of the series itself, that there's a giant, consistent, overarching theme and mission to the entire year, which is me showing what I think is personally terrifying to me in terms of my own anxieties about these great Bat villains, and what makes them scary right now in this particular moment, modernizing them in fun ways. That's the big mission, but story to story, it's also very much about getting to try things that you haven't tried before as a creator, and pair up with people who take you out of your comfort zone.
I'm very grateful to Dec and Jordie, and obviously John Romita Jr. and Danny Miki and Dean White for pushing me in a different direction than I've tried before.
DS: You're welcome, Scott. You owe me one. [Laughs]
CA: Last question: Why Zsasz?
SS: In terms of the story, I wanted a story that was largely about Batman saying that you have to look past the most evil deeds in Gotham, you have to be a detective and see the human causality and motivation behind them. Look at the terrible emotional mass of these things.
Zsasz is very close to the way that Batman sees the Joker. He's just murderous in a way that seems to defy any motivation or logic. I wanted him to be the villain in that he's one of the darkest, if not the darkest along with the Joker. There's no sympathy about him, he's a hard character to see past to any logic of a crime, because he's such a primal, vicious villain. In that way, I felt like he would be one of the most terrifying people to be involved in a case from the very beginning, where you're dealing with a lesson about how to look past evil to its motivation.
Check out a preview of All Star Batman #4, on sale tomorrow, November 9: