Paid For In Blood: Greg Rucka Reflects On His Batman Work, Part Two [Interview]
To say that Greg Rucka had a profound impact on DC Comics in the 21st Century is underselling things quite a bit. After arriving on the scene in the late '90s, he became one of the few writers to have written all three of DC's biggest characters, with critically acclaimed runs on Action Comics and Wonder Woman. It was on Batman, however, where he made his biggest impact, as one of the writers for the year-long No Man's Land crossover, the relaunched "New Gotham" era of Detective Comics, and cowriter of the enduringly influential Gotham Central.
In part one of our in-depth interview, Rucka discussed his early Batman work including the epic "No Man's Land" megaseries. Our chat continues today as he looks back on becoming the regular writer of Detective Comics, speaking very candidly about trouble with DC editorial, his creation of Sasha Bordeaux, and the comic he and Rick Burchett created that he considers to be a perfect done-in-one issue.
ComicsAlliance: I always like to talk about the "New Gotham" revamp in 2000, because after years of the books being really interconnected, the four core Batman books got their own themes. Legends of the Dark Knight went back to focusing on "Year One" stories, Gotham Knights was a team-up book, Batman was the big superhero action book, and you, Rick Burchett and Shawn Martinborough got Detective Comics. I always talk about it as the "crime" book, but then I have to go back and qualify that because it's a crime book where the main antagonists are street gangs, and also a 500-year-old immortal terrorist and his army of shape-shifters.
Greg Rucka: Yep. Because Ra's al-Ghul is awesome.
CA: So did you set out to do a long Ra's al-Ghul story from the beginning?
GR: We're going to have to talk about the business here as much as the product. When [group editor] Denny O'Neil offered me Detective, he offered it to me by saying "I want this to be the crime book. Batman's going to be the superhero book. I want Detective to be the crime book, the street level book." I'm okay with that. So we worked up the bible for "New Gotham," and I presented it to him and said, "This is what I want to do. These are the gangs, this is what I imagine happens when the city reopens and all these things come flooding in, this is what Batman's dealing with, and the spoiler in the mix is Ra's, but I want to keep him held back." And when [Ra's co-creator] Denny O'Neil says you can use Ra's, you do a little dance. Woo-hoo! It's Denny saying you can use Ra's!
It started very well, I thought, but one of the things that happened over the course of the run was that we had a transition. Denny had gotten quite ill, and Bob Schreck was brought in as the new group editor. That transition was not smooth, and that transition was not pleasant, and that transition was not courteous, and a lot of people got really wounded. A lot of people were treated very badly. Ten years, fifteen years later, I can look back on it and see all the things I should've seen at the time and I didn't.
There is a sequence in my Detective Comics run where you can't find consecutive issues by the same artist. That's intentional. That was done on purpose. I feel very strongly that was done with malice aforethought. There was a changing of the guard, and those of us who had been there before were either shown the door in those words, or made to feel so unwelcome that we were reaching for the door as soon as we could. There was a long story that Denny and I had broken and plotted that incorporated Sasha Bordeaux and carried on through. I am not particularly proud of the last half of that run, because the last half of that run was paid for in blood, and that's never a good feeling.
I'll be honest and say that I haven't re-read those issues. If you were to quiz me on them, I would fail. I don't know if they're any damn good at all. I know that [artist] Steve Lieber was breaking his back, but boy howdy. Like I said, paid for in blood. Paid for in blood.
CA: You mentioned Sasha Bordeaux, a character you brought in and a concept that I really like a lot. Bruce Wayne is a wealthy man who's potentially a target for all these criminals, and she's his bodyguard.
GR: It makes no sense to me that the Wayne Board of Directors would not be looking at him and going, "Holy Christ, if he gets kidnapped, we're so screwed. They can hold us up for millions of dollars! What is he doing!? Look, he's in the paper again!" It seemed to be common sense that somebody would be like "No, I'm sorry, he's going to have personal protection."
CA: For anyone who only knows you from comics, your Atticus Kodiak series of novels was about a bodyguard.
GR: Yeah, the Kodiak books were about a Personal Security guy, a guy who protects people.
CA: I just did an interview with Scott Snyder where we talked about doing research for books, and how you learn so much cool stuff that you want to start putting it in everywhere.
GR: Oh, I thought I was playing to my strengths, but also figured that a good bodyguard, a good PSA, wasn't going to fall for Bruce's sh*t. A good PSA was going to take the job seriously, and from Bruce's point of view, that's his worst nightmare, right? "Nothing is working!" How do you justify saying "I don't need security" without compromising the Bruce Wayne identity?
CA: "Don't worry, everybody: I know every martial art ever."
GR: Exactly! The one guy in the world who doesn't need personal protection can't tell anybody that he doesn't need personal protection. Like they say, you write what you know, and I had all that information. it was such a great juxtaposition, to put this woman next to him.
I wanted a romantic tension, but I wanted a different romantic tension. I am the product of Denny O'Neil in many ways, I carry forth a lot of what Denny instilled in me. The Batman romance thing is one of those things, and I think it's actually been proven. I think Denny was actually right, because he used to say, "He doesn't sleep with anybody, because the second he sleeps with somebody, he's going to be sleeping with everybody." And look what happened! You can actually go to the day and date in the early 2000s, when Denny was no longer there, and all the sudden Bruce was hopping in the sack with every pretty girl, up to and including having a son. Denny was right. The second that door was opened, everybody went through it.
One of the things I wanted with Sasha was the unrequited love, the fact that you're never going to get it. The closest you get is a near miss, you get a moment of happiness, but Bruce is never going to be like, "You know what? Let's settle down." It's not going to happen. And I think Bruce is really easy to fall in love with once you see who he really is, because then you see the pathos, and you understand. I love the idea of this woman who got close because she wanted to do her job, that's all she wanted to do, and as a result of doing her job, now she's on the inside. How do you ever get out again?
How do you get out once you know, and what's Bruce's choice once you're inside? He's not going to kill you to protect his secret. He's not going to mindwipe you, because that wasn't around yet, so he's not going to call Zatanna, and even if he could've, I don't think he would. So what does he do? He does what he does with everybody who gets close: He brings them all the way inside.
CA: He gives her a mask and a cape and says "okay, we're doing this now."
GR: But what he does is he subordinates her again, right? Because that's the way he emotionally deals with everybody, with very few exceptions. Actually, really one exception within the Bat-Group, and that's Alfred. Everyone else, he puts in a subordinate role to himself, he has to exert control over, because that's how he creates emotional distance. "Dick will do what I say." "Tim will do what I say." Even "Oracle will do what I say." Right? "You're going to be that close to me? No you're not. Now you work for me."
CA: In your mind, as you're crafting that relationship, you have Batman, who's born out of this random act of violence, as you said. So there's this idea of control as Batman, "this world doesn't make sense unless you force it to."
CA: So he's going to do the thing that makes sense to him. A bat flew through his window, that makes sense to him, now he's going to dress as a bat and fight crime.
GR: Honestly, i think the Bat is as good as anything else. He was fighting crime before the bat, remember that. You know your Miller better than me, chapter and verse. He's gone out there and he's flubbed it, and that works for me much more elegantly, as he's sitting there going, "Wow, I screwed this up. My whole life has been building up to this moment and I screwed it up, and I can't screw it up. What do I do?" And maybe he's hallucinating, he's lost a fair amount of blood. Maybe he hallucinates and remembers something that scared him as a child. maybe the bat does come through the window. But that's the moment where he can go "oh, fear."
It's funny, I was thinking of this. You know what the definition is of a "nonlethal weapon?" You know how a nonlethal weapon is supposed to work? A nonlethal weapon works on the basis of three things: It needs to deter, and that's normally done through pain, and that pain creates a byproduct, which is fear. Fear is one of the elements of nonlethal weaponry. You're going to get hurt, and you don't want to get hurt. Pepper spray hurts. You don't want to be sprayed. That's why it's a useful deterrent as a nonlethal weapon -- I'm not advocating spraying people randomly.
Bruce understands that his best nonlethal weapon is terror. "If I can scare them, they're never going to swing at me, or they're not going to be able to do it very well."
CA: That's why the branding is so important. That's why he throws little metal versions of himself.
GR: Yeah! That's exactly it. Because you know he's coming. And those things hurt, you know? [Laughs] But yeah, Batman's whole existence is trying to control things.
CA: What I was getting at is that all the people who get close to him become his sidekicks, and he's not just putting them in a subordinate role, but he's putting them in a situation where he's unquestionably the best person in the world at dealing with that specific kind of situation. That's why he's on the Justice League, he's the best person alive at being a superhero. So he puts them in a situation that he can control.
GR: I'd agree with that.
CA: So it becomes a thing where yes, he's going to make them his soldiers, arguably, so that he's the one giving orders, but reading those issues, it feels like, and this is obvious, that Batman is way more comfortable being tied up in the Riddler's warehouse with machine guns pointed at him than he is if Sasha's back at the manor, or if Dick's back at the manor or off at college, because he doesn't know what they're doing.
GR: Right, it's not an exercise in control, it's an exercise in protection. He does it to the people he cares about. "I want to know where you are, I want to keep an eye on you. I want to know that you're okay. I understand these scenarios. You will not be going to a movie and getting shot if you're next to me. Here, Dick, if you dress up in this costume and do what I say, you not only get to do cool-ass trapeze stuff, I also don't have to worry about you dying," paradoxically. He's not an idiot, he knows this is harm's way, but he's made his life a study of how to deal with this. I can teach that. I can handle this situation, otherwise he wouldn't be in that costume.
CA: There's that episode of Batman: The Animated Series, "Fear of Victory," that the Arkham Sessions did an episode about, and the line that always sticks with me is the one where Robin says "I can't be afraid of heights! I learned to walk on a tightrope!" It's normal for him. It's the same idea, where "normal" for Batman is being Batman and this life that he lives. His comfort zone is being shot at.
GR: Well, his comfort zone is the moment, and I think it's an ineffable moment, I'm not sure I've ever read it. It's the moment when he realizes that not only can he do it, but he's doing it really well. It's funny, most of Year One's moments are failures that are salvaged at the last second, but there's a moment where he goes out there and he goes "I've got the costume, I've got the batarangs, I've got the car that makes a really scary noise when it's coming down the street, I've got the intel, I did the research, I know who I'm going after."
You know when it is? It's the Five Families moment, "you have eaten well." That's the moment where he's like "awwww yeahhhhh. I've got this."
CA: I love that moment because he sets it up.
GR: He does! He plays it by the numbers. Everything goes exactly as he wants it to! And you know he had to go home that night and go "YEAH! Mic drop!" That was his mic drop moment! All these years, where he has sacrificed everything, he's been beaten up more than any heavyweight boxer has ever been, he's spent nights cramming and learning and denying himself happiness. "You could be in love!" "No, I can't be in love. If I'm in love then I'm not fighting crime, and I must fight crime. No love for me." And then he goes and he does it! He slept well that night. That might be the first good night's sleep he had since his parents died.
CA: Based on what you said earlier, I think you'd agree with me when I say that Sasha gets lost in the shuffle.
GR: Oh, yeah. Her second life is much more effective than he first. Sasha in Checkmate is a much, much better character.
CA: After a couple of years, the books go back to being very interlinked a crossover-driven, and that starts with Officer Down, which is sort of a prelude to the next act of your work on Batman, and you get Bruce Wayne: Murderer and Bruce Wayne: Fugitive. I know you said you hadn't read them in a while, but I love those issues where Bruce Wayne escapes from jail.
CA: I'm a sucker for it, because Spider-Man did that when I was 13. He escaped from jail to go fight his clone and it was amazing in 1995. But yeah, Sasha really gets lost, and when Checkmate started a few years later, I was really excited. Obviously I like Sasha Bordeaux, but I'm also a big fan of Queen & Country. And whereas Queen & Country's hook is that it's a realistic spy story, Checkmate was...
GR: As realistic a story as you were going to get in the DC Universe!
CA: Did you always plan to bring Sasha back? Obviously, she wasn't going to fit in Gotham Central.
GR: Checkmate comes after Infinite Crisis, so Sasha slipped back into the story when we were working on that, when it became clear we were doing a story involving Checkmate. We had left her in Checkmate, that's where we see her at the end of Detective, so when we got to the Maxwell Lord stuff, she seemed like an obvious character to use. All the stuff that then fed into OMAC Project led in turn to the Checkmate book.
It was a chance to redeem her, at least in my eyes. I'm not an idiot, Sasha is not a character that many people gave a rat's ass about. I think those who read Checkmate got to know her better, because Checkmate was frankly a better book for her. Her story in Detective just got shredded. It just got mauled because of all the stuff that was going on, so that part of what happened was when we hit the Futigive/Murderer storyline, it was like "Okay, well, we better use this to get her out of it." It's very hard to build something when you've got an event every other month, and when there's no consistency and continuity to a book, when you're always changing some element of a book's makeup. It can really damage what you're trying to do.
I'm not a fan of events for this reason, and it's ironic because I think when events work well, they work well because they've been built to and are executed on the basis of a story well told. But that's less and less the case now. Now it's about "How big is the event going to be? How are we going to shock the reader this time?" I'm not sure the reader needs to be shocked. Maybe the reader just wants to be told a good story. That's why I tend to like done-in-ones.
CA: Like "Air Time."
GR: "Air Time" is a perfect done-in-one, in my opinion.
CA: [Laughs] That's a bold statement to make about a comic you wrote.
GR: I don't say this about my stuff a lot! It's one of the best things I've ever written, just structurally. It does everything it needs to do in a Batman comic. You know the character, you know his crisis, you know his battle, and then you see what's really important to him. You see what makes him amazing. And it's drawn by Rick Burchett.
There are very few things I can look at and say "That one, I did well." I very rarely say that. Almost always I look at something I've done and be like "ugh, that was wrong." You've done this. You've made comics. You know the difference between what's in your head and what comes out on the page, and it's a very rare thing when you're able to hold up a book and go "This executed better than I imagined it would."
CA: They had it on the big Comixology sale a few weeks back and I wrote about it, but I wish it was just continually in print so you could go "Hey, if you just want to read a Batman comic and you've read all the big ones, here you go."
GR: There's almost no place for those kind of stories anymore, and that makes me sad. We don't get those anymore. We're not allowed, or it seems that we're not allowed at the Big Two. Here's 22 -- it used to be 22, now it's 20 -- pages, tell a story about this character. It doesn't have to tie into anything, it doesn't have to be about who murdered who when, it doesn't have to touch on any continuity, just give us a story in 20 pages. It seems more and more like writers aren't allowed to do that. They're told quite clearly, "no, you can't do that. Where would we put it in a trade? How will it affect this event? You have to acknowledge this other thing that's going on!" It seems a pity to me.