DC Collectibles Execs Talk Past, Present And Future Of ‘Batman: Black & White’ Statues [Interview]
Launched in 2005 by what was then called DC Direct, the Batman: Black & White statue series is DC Collectibles’ three-dimensional spinoff of the hugely acclaimed, Eisner-winning 1990s comic book anthology edited by Mark Chiarello that invited some of the world’s best and most idiosyncratic artists to express their own uninhibited visions of the enduringly popular and graphically compelling Dark Knight. Like the original book, the Black & White statue line has become a favorite among collectors and illustration enthusiasts for its high quality craftsmanship and impeccable taste in collaborators. Some of the artists who’ve designed for the Black & White series include Paul Pope, Simon Bisley, Eduardo Risso, Mike Mignola, Steve Rude, Alex Ross, Frank Miller, Matt Wagner, Neal Adams, Bruce Timm, Cliff Chiang, Darwyn Cooke, Frank Quietly... the list is very long and almost embarrassingly auspicious.
Having collected numerous DC and Warner Bros. Animation-related statues from the days when they were still licensed out to sculptors like Randy Bowen, the artists of Graffiti Designs and the talents at the much missed Warner Bros. Studio Store, I’m obviously a great admirer of the work of DC Collectibles. There’s something very hard to describe about how a great statue or other three-dimensional representation of your favorite hero can express their true, well, awesomeness in a way that’s utterly distinct from line art or even film or animation. It’s arguable that no collectibles line possesses this power in greater quantities than Batman: Black & White, as the line’s success with fans and creative professionals continues to demonstrate as it releases its fiftieth statue this week, designed by longtime ComicsAlliance favorite Sean Murphy (Punk Rock Jesus, The Wake).
To celebrate the occasion (which also syncs up nicely with the long-awaited return of Chiarello’s beloved anthology, for which a photograph of Murphy’s statue will serve as a variant cover), we connected with DC Collectibles VP - Creative Services Kevin Kiniry and Design Director Jim Fletcher to talk about the history of Batman: Black & White, the possibility of a Black & White villains spinoff, and why so many comic book artists consider working on the line a “badge of honor.”
ComicsAlliance: Since we’re at a kind of anniversary stage with the Batman: Black & White statues, I’d like to know more about how the campaign began back in the day. What relationship if any did this line have with the Batman: Black & White comic book anthology edited by DC Comics art director Mark Chiarello?
Jim Fletcher: Mark Chiarello was obviously the inspiration behind the statue line because he was behind the Batman: Black & White comic book in the first place. It’s funny that around the time of our 50th statue, he’s relaunching the book with a new set of artists. It’s been a really nice bunch of synergy to get to such a big milestone and having a new book to help restart the line all over again.
Kevin Kiniry: We talk with Mark Chiarello a lot even though we’re now in the Burbank office and he’s back in New York. We’ve worked with him for years when we were all in the New York office [before the formation of DC Entertainment]. Whenever we go back for conventions or visit the New York office for some reason, we have discussions about the Batman: Black & White line and we also say to him, “Bring the comic back! That comic was awesome!” It’s finally happening, partially because he’s tired of us asking but also because he’s gotten a really great collection of stuff in. Mark is so loving with that comic book that he really makes sure the quality is there. And the timing is perfect. We hoped for this but we didn’t know that it would happen, that our 50th statue would come out so close to when he was relaunching [the anthology]. We wanted it to happen. Thank goodness all the stars were aligned. Our 50th statue, Sean Murphy’s, has been photographed and will be used as a variant cover for the first issue in September. Again, the synergy just got going. We found more and more opportunities to meld them together.
CA: I've seen comic book artists talk about having one of these statues made as a kind of career goal. You often work with artists who I think are very much “artists’ artists,” like Steve Rude, whose statue is the Black & White that I own. What's your relationship like with the artist community and how do you work together to make the statues? For example, how is someone like Sean Murphy identified and approached to become involved in the campaign?
JF: That’s a really good question. Kevin and I have a list of about 30-40 artists that we keep adding to constantly to see who we’re going to pick. Steve Rude is definitely an artist’s artist and his was a lot of fun to work with. He actually did a complete set of “turn-arounds” and everything. When we’re looking to approach artists, we look to see who has a really unique style and who really brings something to the table. When we started, the question was, Who’s so identified with Batman that people would want these products? But I think now our goal is more focused on who’s got a really unique perspective on Batman; that’s what we look for.
And the artists all do wear these statues as badges of honor. Anybody that we’ve called up is super excited and always willing to get us what we want to get our statues done.
KK: It is considered a badge of honor to a lot of guys, so we feel like we have a responsibility to make sure we’re picking people who are brining a point of view deserving of being out there. We don’t take these decisions lightly. There are a lot of debates that Jim and I have where we’ll bring in Geoff Johns, our Chief Creative Officer, and ask, What do we have to do to get the right mix of people? Who are we celebrating right now? Who is going to get this opportunity? Sometimes it’s just artists’ schedules that dictate some of it, but a lot of the time it’s about how we can put the right mix together so we have the perfect offering of Batman.
JF: If you look at the line on a yearly basis you can see there’s old, there’s new, there’s an interesting one mixed in there. It is quite a long process to pick out the artists we work with.
KK: And we do love our artists’ artists, as you called it; people really known in the artist community as having that really high quality work that we love to celebrate. But Jim and I love to find new people, too. Every con, we walk through Artists’ Alley and just see what people are doing and hopefully find the next person who's up-and-coming.
JF: Sometimes we like to do statues that no one’s expecting. The Sean Galloway one, I don’t think anybody saw that coming. The Sergio Aragonés one, I’m sure no one saw that one coming.
KK: With Sean Murphy specifically, he’s been a collaborator with DC for a little while now, both with the comics but also with DC Collectibles. He’s one of those guys who just really gives a lot to the project. You’re not just going to get a quick sketch or hear him say, “Oh, I drew a Batman 10 years ago, go look at that.” He gave us a lot of sketches and ideas. He was somebody who really brought a lot to the table. We’re really happy to celebrate him with our 50th statue.
CA: When an artist is giving you sketches and other material, I’m wondering how it’s different than, say, when Mark Chiarello looks at a cover sketch for a comic book. He’s looking for a thing he needs for that very prescribed purpose. For you, I imagine it’s all that plus a technical dimension that I don’t really understand, because surely you can’t just sculpt anything somebody draws.
JF: Well, technically you can sculpt anything but the question is can you ship anything? That ‘s a little trickier. The 50th one was a really good example of a challenging engineering project. When Sean sent the drawing in we all got really excited but then we had to sit down and figure out, How are we gonna make this thing stand up so it doesn’t tip over? That was definitely challenging. Luckily we had done something similar before with Dustin Nguyen’s Batman Beyond statue, where Batman is balancing on his hand, so that made it a little easier.
KK: I don’t want Jim to minimize his part of the project because he and his team really put a lot of work into making sure, when they get these sketches in, to working with the artist to capture their vision and translate it into a 3D world. There’s really something special about making sure your final piece works in several angles. We know that people love to display their statues in a lot of different ways.
JF: Capes are tricky, particularly with Batman or Superman. A cape can potentially block the whole back piece.
KK: How horrible is that, to come into someone’s special room with their statues or their toys and go, Oh you have to stand something at a certain angle? That’s great for 2D art but not how it works for us.
CA: It’s remarkable how well that translation works. As you say, 3D has different challenges than 2D, but I look at someone whose work is lifelike -- say, Alex Ross -- and as hyper-stylized as Mike Mignola, and yet they all work in your statues. It seems very simple when you look at it. “Oh, that’s Mike Mignola’s Batman and I can turn him around.” Is it really that simple?
JF: That’s a good question because all the art directors do a really good job of working with our sculptors. I think John Matthews did most of the Batman: Black & Whites. He’s a sculpting chameleon. He can do everything, from the Mike Mignola one to the Sean Murphy one. He’s amazing, the range he can pull off. But a lot of it is the deft hand of the art directors who say, That doesn’t really match up with the drawing, or pulling out a feature that wasn’t quite understood originally. Some of the artists we work with have a very good knowledge of 3D -- like Alex Ross -- and it translates easily. When we did the Ed McGuinness one, he called us up and said he actually understood his own work better after working on statues. That was a neat badge of honor to wear.
CA: What trends have you noticed over the last eight years in terms of what people are into?
JF: Black & White seems to be trending!
KK: [laughs] We’ve been really lucky that Batman: Black & White is strong enough that in a year we can pepper in a lot of different styles. We’ll do a very “comic booky” look and then something very edgy and “artistic.” We’ve been having good success with humor or “fun” looks. The Sergio Aragonés one did really well for us. That was very controversial but it turned out really good. I think that proves just how resilient Batman is and how there’s a Batman for everyone. And we want to sell a Batman to everyone!
JF: This line could go on for ten years just from the list of artists Kevin and I have right now. I don’t see any problem getting to 100.
KK: If anything, the biggest “trend” I’ve seen is us seeing how far we can push it. And that means getting versions of Batman from artists who are not doing a conventional costume you’ve seen in a book for 70 years. They’re pushing their own version, they’re adding details, they’re including more of a story in the piece. That’s something we’re able to do now that we weren’t able to do before. Going forward, I see us pushing some of the choices we’re making as being “the artist-specific version.”
JF: Like the Sean Murphy one or Paul Pope ones, where Batman is actually doing something in the pose and not just standing around with his arms crossed -- “waiting for a bus,” as we like to call it. That’s been a good trend for us. People have been reacting really well to Batman doing something interesting.
KK: There was debate about that. This is an artist-based series of statues and standing straight is really the most fair way to compare them. But some of the artists really pushed for their voices to be heard. “My Batman is an active Batman.” Like the Jock Batman, where he’s jumping down from a rooftop. “It’s Dick Grayson, the Batman who used to be a gymnast. We need him to be active.” And I’ve got to say, we got a great response from people when we did it.
JF: An early one like that was the Tim Sale one, where he wanted to do something really different. He broke the mould of Batman standing upright.
CA: You mentioned your list of potential artists. Can you give us the names of anyone you’re talking to that we haven’t seen yet?
KK: There are 30 or 40 of them, but we don’t want to say much about who may be coming up. Jim and I have our favorites but for different reasons we can’t always fit them in because we usually only have six to eight slots of statues to do in a year. There’s the new Batman: Black & White comic coming out in September. In a way, that adds to our problem because it gives us even more great artists who are working on the book! We’re definitely considering some of those guys as well. There are a few favorites and dreams. Like, what would it be like if there was a Moebius Batman?
JF: There are some classics we haven’t gotten to yet, obviously. We see all the requests online and agree with some of them but we can’t actually say yet.
CA: A Moebius Batman would have been pretty great.
KK: There’s such a wide range of comic artists in this industry that there’s just too much to choose from. I would love to do a whole year of just Batman: Black and White statues, but I think that would overrun the market.
CA: Is there a Katsuhiro Otomo statue or am I just thinking about the piece he did for the original Batman: Black & White comic?
KK: Oh my gosh, just thinking about it...
JF: We never did one of those but that’s another one to possibly add on the list. There’s a lot of great, great Batmen out there. We go to shows all the time and we’re on the Internet all the time looking at people who haven’t even been published yet and going, “That would make a really good Batman.” And just reaching outside the basic comic book realm for talent has been fun and something to think more about, too.
KK: And then there’s working with people outside our industry. Sculptors, moviemakers. What would their version of Batman be?
JF: We’d love to push it that way. There are so many ways to push this program.
CA: You’ve expanded to Batman villains. How’s that going?
JF: That’s been great! The sales for the villains rival the Batman sales. In some cases, even beat them. It’s pretty interesting to see the Batman collectors are so passionate about the villains -- but of course the villains are great. Kevin’s said this a few times over the years: we should just do a Joker line spun off from the Batman line.
KK: You can see from the versions of the Joker we’ve done -- Lee Bermejo, Jim Lee, we’re going to do Greg Capullo -- they’re all so different and interesting. And some artists seem to get more free when they play with the villains.
JF: And what’s funny is that each one has outsold its Batman counterpart.
KK: We’re really excited by the idea of the villains. There was a lot of debate that day when the line first started moving outside of the Batman-only world. I think it was a smart choice for us to do. We don’t want to overwhelm -- unless we did a spinoff line, which, who knows, maybe that would make sense -- but we don’t want to corrupt the idea of this being primarily Batman. But we do love our villains. We love them a lot.
CA: What about Batman associates like Robin or Batgirl?
JF: Batgirl is definitely on our list of projects to get to at some point. So is Robin. It’s just when’s the timing going to be right? That’s what we’re always looking at for this line. We just did the Harley Quinn [designed by Bruce Timm], that’s a good example of the kind of thing we’re going to start peppering in when we can.
CA: That looks great, by the way. I saw the photo.
JF: It looks dead-on to Bruce Timm’s drawing.
KK: You’re going to go crazy when you see it in person.
CA: What else can you tell us about the line going forward?
KK: Starting in 2014, we’re numbering the line again. We took about a year and a half off from numbering our statues but our fans really wanted to have that special feeling that these are collectible. Starting with our Nicola Scott Batman in 2014, they will be limited runs of 5,200 -- which that Harley Quinn is going to blow out of. I wish we were making an open run but we want to make sure these are special and collectible to fans.
JF: If you want some idea of what we might be doing going forward, definitely check out the Batman: Black & White book coming up. We can’t say which artists we are or aren’t looking at, but you’ll probably have an idea if you rifle through that book.
CA: You mentioned a production run of 5,200. Is this part of DC’s preoccupation with the number 52 or just a coincidence?
KK: Just a coincidence!
JF: But what a weird coincidence!