Mike W. Barr On Batman: The Comics Alliance Interview, Part Two
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, continuing from part one, Barr talks about the creation of Batman and the Outsiders, The Maze Agency, and his new Legends of the Dark Knight story.
ComicsAlliance: Let's talk about Batman and the Outsiders.
Mike W. Barr: Glad to.
CA: I love that first cover. A friend of mine is a huge Outsiders fan, and I think it's all because of Batman saying "I don't need your two-bit Justice League!"
MWB: I had very little input into that cover. That was mostly editor Len Wein writing that cover, and of course art by Jim Aparo.
CA: Did you pitch the series as "Hey, Batman's going to quit the Justice League and it's going to be a big deal, he's going to have his own team with young heroes?"
MWB: I thought the maximum impact of the story would be not to have Batman continue as an active member of the Justice League while he was leading the Outsiders, so I pitched it to Len as "Batman takes a leave of absence from the Justice League." Len, bless his heart, said "It'll be more effective if Batman quits the League, so we'll have him do that." That was far beyond anything I thought we could get away with, so I was very grateful to Len for having implemented that.
CA: And continuing your tradition of doing stories that brought back things people hadn't used in a while, that was Metamorpho's big comeback as a character. He's one of my all-time favorites.
MWB: Oh, is he? Good! When we were going through who the Outsiders would be, we'd decided that it would be pretty much fifty-fifty between established characters and new characters. Metamorpho was a good fit because he has great powers, those great elemental powers with all the things he can turn into. He's a great visual. You also have that very interesting long-range subplot with Simon Stagg and Java and all those characters there, all that interaction in the background.
CA: There's a connection there with Metamorpho, but also through Jim Aparo, to Bob Haney, who was a long-time collaborator with Aparo on Brave and the Bold. Were you a fan of his Batman stories? I know your first Batman story was in BATB. Did you ever get to work with him?
MWB: I did work with Bob when I was an editor at DC, yes. When I first started as a staffer at DC, I was the staff proofreader, and Bob was working for DC at that time. He was a very nice guy, and always very kind to me as the absolute lowest man on the totem pole. Later on, when I was an editor at DC, I did use Bob when I was editing The Unknown Soldier, and I have him some other work as well. At that point, we were told, not exactly to get rid of the old guys, but we were sort of told "we don't mind if you get rid of these guys so we can bring in younger guys." But I thought Bob still had good stories left in him, so I used Bob as much as I could. Hopefully, someone will show me the same respect.
Bob was never one of my absolute favorite writers when I was growing up, but I do like a lot of his work. I do like Metamorpho, and even moreso now, looking back on them nowadays when I'm not as bound to continuity as I was when I was a kid, I like reading stories like the Super-Sons. I love the fact that they gave the more continuity-minded readers conniption fits, because I've sometimes done that myself.
CA: As a Batman fan, it does seem like there's a connection between the way you both wrote the character. In the '70s, Haney was the only one who really wanted to do stories with Batman walking down the street in broad daylight saying hi to people.
CA: He's a happier character, and there's no idea that's too silly for Bob Haney. He's not embarrassed of Batman's past, in the same way that you're not afraid to go back to deathtraps and "old chum."
MWB: To some extent, those are two different concepts. I don't think I ever did Batman walking down the street saying hello to people!
CA: [Laughs] You definitely did not.
MWB: I think that's a little too far for the character, but Bob made it work. And you have to remember, that's what sold the books at that time, which, frankly, is the most important consideration. Is that going to sell the book?
As to the deathtraps, those, I think, are a vital part of Batman's history. Batman's fourth or fifth story in Detective Comics, written by Gardner Fox, was a deathtrap. Those go way back to Batman, and they're a vital part of the character. If you don't have a deathtrap every now and then, you're not using all that can be had from Batman.
CA: I love deathtraps.
MWB: Those show the basic resourcefulness and knowledge of the character. He can be taken by surprise, but he almost always recovers immediately. He's always thinking. "Okay, if I move this way, that'll happen, if I move this way, that'll happen."
CA: I feel like those are the two contrasting images of DC's superheroes. You have Superman breaking the chains, he's physically powerful, nothing can hold him. That's his big power, even though he's more than just muscles. That's his thing. With Batman, the deathtrap is part of the iconic image of the character, where they show that he's human. The easiest way to show that he's human is to say "this thing can kill him," but the easiest way to show that he's the World's Greatest Detective is to have him think his way out of problems. I love deathtraps for pretty much all characters, but for Batman, they work so well.
MWB: Yes. I don't know how much they do of that nowadays, because I've not been keeping up with the Batman titles, but I hope they do them every now and then at least. It's a vital part of the character's appeal, and it's also such fun to have Batman put into this dilemma that you have no idea how he's going to get out of it, and then of course he gets out because he's Batman.
CA: You do one of the most interesting things that I've seen in a while in your digital Legends of the Dark Knight story. You have a three-part story, and the first two parts, in classic Batman style, end with a deathtrap. And it's the same deathtrap in the second part, and the villain just goes "Oh, I watched you escape the first time and fixed that part so you can't do it again!"
MWB: I'm not going to say that's never been done because I don't know, but I've never seen that being done. Even when the Flash was always being put into deathtraps by the Mirror Master, Trickster, Captain Cold or all those guys and escaping, I thought, "why don't they just patch that hole?" Just fix it and put him in it again. That's what I tried this time, and it was a lot of fun.
CA: Getting back to The Outsiders for a moment, you'd worked with Jim Aparo before.
MWB: On several issues of Brave and the Bold, yes.
CA: Was he your first choice of artist, or was it just a matter of Brave and the Bold ending and Jim Aparo being free to draw another Batman title?
MWB: What happened was that one of DC's foreign publishers, I think it was in South America, was publishing four Batman books as a weekly title. It was Batman, Detective, World's Finest and Brave and the Bold, published weekly as a Batman title. So when Brave and the Bold was canceled, they wanted another Batman title to take its place, and I suggested Batman as the leader of a team of heroes.
DC was very fond of Jim, Jim having been a very loyal employee over the years, so they agreed that this would be Jim's next assignment. Jim was a little leery at first of the idea of taking on a team book, but I think he saw this as the wave of the future and then grew to like the new characters as well. He said to me, "Let's have a lot of the Batman in there," and I said "Well, sure, we can do that."
CA: There are some great Jim Aparo Batman moments in Batman and the Outsiders. Aparo, to me, is the definitive Batman artist.
MWB: He's certainly one of them, yes.
CA: You said you made the decision early on to do a mixture of old and new characters, and I was curious about the process of coming up with them. Was Aparo involved from the start, or was that something you worked out with editorial before he was involved?
MWB: Len Wein and I worked out what the new characters would be and sent descriptions to Jim, saying "Draw these up and see what you think." Jim submitted his visual ideas for those characters, with the exception of Geo-Force, who turned out to be the brother of Terra from The New Teen Titans. I'm pretty sure George Perez designed that costume, because it was based on Terra's costume.
CA: So that connection was there early on?
MWB: We decided even before the book was printed that that would be the connection between the two characters. I had not known about the character. She was still in the planning stages when I came up with the idea for Geo-Force, and Len said "Well, we have this other character with Earth powers in New Teen Titans, what are we going to do about that?" Marv Wolfman was brought in on the discussion of that, and it was Marv's idea that they'd be half-brother and sister.
CA: What about Black Lightning?
MWB: I'd always liked Black Lightning as a character. Tony Isabella is a good friend of mine, and I thought his solo title was canceled far too quickly. Not only was he a good character with good powers, but this would help keep him in the public eye as well.
CA: Looking back on the book, obviously it was a hit. That, Teen Titans and Legion were the big team books at DC, the ones that got the Baxter Paper series. And really, you can tell people who are obsessed with comics because they talk about Baxter Paper.
MWB: [Laughs] Right. Since Camelot 3000 was the first Baxter-paper title, I’ve always been aware of that.
CA: Going back and reading it, it's structured in a really interesting way. You've got different stories that you tease out through the run. "The Truth About Halo" and "The Truth About Looker" are origin stories, but they're not told sequentially. You have "Halo" Part One, and then two issues of the team doing something else before you come back for Part Two. I don't think I've seen anyone build, or at least title a story like that.
MWB: Maybe not. Besides being a DC Silver Age and pre-Silver Age fan, I was also a generation one Marvel fan, so I grew up on Stan Lee's storytelling and learned, like my entire generation did, how to write a story by reading how Stan Lee structured stories. To some extent, that was sort of how Stan would've done it.
CA: It does have that soap operatic quality to it.
MWB: On Batman and the Outsiders, while I think it's very much in the tradition of DC Comics and DC history, it also has a lot of Marvel influence, as does almost every DC book of that era. We were all influenced by Stan Lee. It’s very difficult to try to sift out the Marvel influences from the DC influences in writers of my generation. We just wanted to do good comics.
CA: The interesting thing about Marvel and DC as universes is that even today, DC tends to be very compartmentalized and fragmented. Batman stuff happens in Batman books, Superman stuff happens in Superman books. It's rare to see stories where Batman will go to Paradise Island, or Superman goes to Oa, whereas Marvel books are much looser. Spider-Man fights Dr. Doom, the Red Skull shows up and messes with the X-Men. Batman and the Outsiders had a New Teen Titans connection, it brought back the Wayne Tower Batcave, there were other established characters involved like Black Lightning and Metamorpho. It has that feeling of showing a bigger universe. Was that an important element for you, going in?
MWB: It was, in the sense that I always wanted to have somewhere to go to in case I was ever stuck for a storyline. Each of the Outsiders brought something unique to the mix that you could use for a story backdrop. With Geo-Force, there was this Balkan, European politics and spooky castles and all that, with Black Lightning, there was urban grit. With Katana, there was Oriental mysticism. With Metamorpho, there was that whole weird Simon Stagg universe of political intrigue, and with Halo there was that cosmic storyline we could go back to anytime. Which, again, plays back to what Stan Lee did with the Marvel books.
CA: Let's talk about the new story that you and Tom Lyle did. I read it and loved it, because it's a perfectly classic Batman story. He calls Robin "old chum," there are deathtraps, there are supervillains with weird plans, and it's nice to see creators doing that kind of story. How did it all come about? Did someone at DC call you up wanting you to be part of this Batman anthology?
MWB: It came about by a very circuitous route. DC had done Batman Beyond, and then they did a Superman Beyond one-shot. The way that my mind works, I thought "well, you've got Batman, you've got Superman, the next one of DC's big characters is Wonder Woman." The instant I said "Wonder Woman Beyond" to myself, that started turning into something. I made some notes on that and contacted DC and said "what if we do Wonder Woman Beyond," and they said "Well, that's the purview of DC editorial in Burbank, so you should contact Hank Kanalz."
Hank and I had worked together before on the Malibu Ultraverse, back in the early '90s, and had no contact since then. I dropped an email to Hank and we caught up, and had a very warm reunion. Nobody there had any interest in Wonder Woman Beyond, but Hank very graciously said "Look, I'm publishing this Legends of the Dark Knight digital series and I'd be delighted to have you write for that." That turned into the story we have there, "Elements of Crime."
CA: One of the interesting things is that visually, it's '90s Batman and '90s Tim Drake. Was that Tom Lyle's choice?
MWB: That was Tom. I'd written the first episode with basically the Jason Todd Robin, and Tom obviously feels more comfortable with the Tim Drake Robin, which is fine, because he co-created the character. I said "Sure, I have no problem with that whatsoever, whatever Tom is comfortable with," so we used Tim Drake for the rest of the story. And it worked out fine. As Hank pointed out, there are some differences between the personalities of the characters, which we were able to use in the second chapter. Tim is a different character than Jason, and that’s reflected in the story. Tom is another of those guys who I don't understand why he isn't working more than he is. It's a perfectly contemporary, moody job, but uses all the classic Batman elements.
CA: And again, it reads like the sequel to an old Batman story.
MWB: Well, sort of.
CA: You bring back a villain that I was completely unfamiliar with.
MWB: That's because he didn't exist before that story.
MWB: We made him up!
CA: You had me completely fooled. I was making plans to track down issues with Element King!
MWB: Well, he does bear some similarities to existing Batman villains, but that rendition of the character is an original.
CA: That's a really great concept, to have this return of a Silver Age villain who never existed.
MWB: I wanted to use some of the old Batman villains from the '50s who hadn't appeared in a long time. Hank didn't want to use them, fearing they were perhaps too old-fashioned, so I said "Why don't we just create a character in the style of those characters and present him as an old Batman villain?" and Hank thought that was a good idea. I think it worked out well.
CA: Who did you initially want to use?
MWB: For my money, the best single Batman story of all time is from Detective #265, from March, 1959. It's called "Batman's First Case," written by Bill Finger, and it's got everything in it that you want from a Batman story. It's got deathtraps, it's got a colorful villain, it's got the origin reprised, it's got all kinds of giant props in it. It turns out that this story is a reworking of a Robin solo story from Star-Spangled Comics #74 (November, 1947), also by Bill Finger.
The villain in that story is a character called the Clock, and he's one of the villains I wanted to use. There's another one called the Signalman, who’s appeared in some fairly recent stories, who you're probably familiar with, and the third one, a character called Mirror Man that's only appeared twice in Batman history. Hank didn't really like any of these characters, so we created a new one.
CA: It's really enjoyable. You talk about that story having everything you want out of Batman, and you do the same thing here. It's got the deathtraps, the good relationship between Batman and Robin, an interesting villain. There's also the idea of legacy villains, something that I've always been attracted to. Did it come together easily?
MWB: Fairly so. It was basically juggling elements that I'd seen in a lot of stories over the years and, of course, had used a lot over the years. I was grinning every minute I was writing that story. To some extent, all storytelling is a sort of pastiche, in that you're doing an imitation. You learn how to tell stories initially by imitating what has gone before.
A lot of the Batman stories have the same basic... I don't want to call it a formula because that implies a lot of repetition. The phrase I use is "recipe," because a recipe has variations. There are probably fifty different ways to make meatloaf, but they're all meatloaf. You have a recipe for each kind, just like the number of Batman stories you can do. They may all have basic similarities, but you can use that recipe to tell many, many different stories. I think that's what we did here.
CA: To get away from Batman for just a moment, let's talk about The Maze Agency. That starts in 1989. When you're writing Batman, you're ostensibly writing a detective character, but he's a very specific kind of detective who's also an adventurer and a crimefighter. How much of Maze Agency was your response to wanting to do traditional detective stories?
MWB: Basically all of it. My favorite author of all time is Ellery Queen. Most of his work is out of print right now, so people aren't necessarily as familiar with him as I'd like them to be, but I grew up on Batman -- I can’t remember not being a Batman fan -- and I've been an Ellery Queen fan since I was 15 years old. When I first started writing stories, they were imitations of Ellery Queen stories, so I wanted to do that kind of story in a comic, because no one was doing a straight, non-superhero related, no fantastic elements whodunnit in those days.
I was able to bring that back a few times over the years, and now I'm talking to some publishers right now about bringing it back. I'm not sure it's going to happen, but I'd love it to.
CA: The thing that I really like about them is that they're "fair play" mysteries, which is in the Ellery Queen mold. But the big joke is that you can figure out Ellery Queen mysteries, but you have to be a genius.
MWB: That was what Manfred Lee, one of the two co-creators of Ellery Queen, said. Frederic Danny, one of EQ’s co-creators, said: “Ellery Queen is always fair to the reader.” Manfred B. Lee, EQ’s other co-creator, amended that, saying: "Ellery Queen is fair to the reader if the reader is a genius." I confess to sometimes having fallen into that same trap of making a story possibly too complicated for the reader to solve, but hopefully that's something you can correct as you get older.
CA: Back to Batman one more time before we end the interview: "Fear For Sale" is one of my favorite Batman stories, period. It is a perfect Batman story.
MWB: Oh, thank you. Everything seemed to fit together perfectly in that one. All the plot elements can always fit if you force them, but there everything fell into place naturally.
CA: Looking back on your work on Batman, do you have a favorite?
MWB: That's certainly one of them, yes. For the two extremes in length, I also like Batman: Full Circle very much, the Reaper sequel that Alan Davis and I did. That, I think, is a very good story. I also like the Batman: Black and White story that Alan and I did, which is only like eight pages long. But that's technically the most perfect story I've ever written in terms of the pacing, the plotting and the execution.
CA: I'm also a big fan of Batman Special #1, with the Wrath. There have been a lot of attempts to do an evil version of Batman, from Killer Moth to Bane to Prometheus, but I don't think we'd have Prometheus without the Wrath. The idea of a kid whose criminal parents were killed by cops on the same day that Batman's parents were killed by criminals, and who then grows up to be an evil Batman... I love that. It's fantastic.
MWB: Thank you. That's also a favorite story of mine, in the sense that it was inspired by an Ellery Queen novel called "The Player on the Other Side," which is fifty years old this year, which introduced me to the Thomas Henry Huxley essay that I quote in the comic.
CA: It seems like an idea that sells itself.
MWB: Oh, yes. It's been done, as you pointed out, a number of times over the years. Every generation sort of invents the idea of an evil counterpart of a character, especially Batman, because the idea of an evil counterpart of Batman is so compelling. I wish the recent spate of Wrath sequels had had another version of the evil Batman, but I guess it’s also a tribute to Michael Golden and me.
CA: Was it another one that came together easily?
MWB: I believe so, yeah. The visual success of the character is due to Michael Golden, who designed him. He did an incredible job on that story. I re-read it a few months ago for the first time, maybe since it came out, and I was just amazed by how Michael put the story together.
We did it plot style. I sent him a plot, which he then broke down into page-by-page, and it was very interesting. Everything that was in the plot was in the story, but he took some of the elements and moved them around, made them at right angles to each other, and it was really an incredible job on his part. But it all still worked.
CA: I take it was him who suggested the big W on his face that would give him bat ears?
MWB: That was all him. And I will confess to the entire concept of that, not only the ears, but the idea of a kid whose criminal parents were murdered by cops, as maybe being possibly a little over the top, but I thought it was thematically resonant, and would work fine.
CA: Oh, it's very over-the-top! But that's the reason I love it! Batman is over the top!
MWB: That's true. By his very existence, Batman implies some larger, more fantastic universe, even though he himself does not have superpowers.
CA: What eight year-old, on witnessing the death of his parents, raises his fists up and goes "I will make war on all criminals!"
MWB: Well, sure. It’s over the top, but it’s also great drama. I've been trying to figure out over the years when I first read the origin of Batman. I don't know when I first saw it, possibly in that story in Detective #265. But even though the element of a young orphan vowing war on all criminals is utterly fantastic, it's such a compelling story that once you read it, you just can't forget it. I don't know anyone who has. I've talked to people who haven't read Batman stories in forty or fifty years, and they still remember Batman's origin. It’s the single greatest origin in comics due to its power and its simplicity. And that’s Bill Finger.