Scott Snyder On ‘Superman Unchained,’ ‘Batman: Zero Year’ And His Hat: ‘You Can Soar’ [SDCC 2013]
Over the past few years, Scott Snyder has rocketed to a position as one of DC's top writers, handling both Batman's origin with Greg Capullo in the pages of "Zero Year" and the high-profile launch of Superman Unchained with Jim Lee. At Comic-Con he sat down to talk to us about how to challenge the Man of Steel on a geopolitical level, the meaning behind the Red Hood Gang and their inspiration, and why wearing a Batman baseball cap made him feel like he was in high school again.
Spoilers for both "Zero Year" and upcoming issues of Superman Unchained follow!
ComicsAlliance: We've talked a little bit before about how you like to use the narrative device of your main character talking about something that they learned from their father or something in their past, and I noticed you did it twice in Superman Unchained #1.
Scott Snyder: I took some time off from doing that because I wanted to vary up my style, but I think it's a tool that's powerful and important, and I want to be able to use it judiciously when it's the right move. I really believe it is here. The thing is, I totally agree, I was using that too much and falling back on it, but I want to make sure when I do use it, it's effective.
CA: I think it really does work well in Superman Unchained. That book did everything I wanted a Superman book to do. There's a super-feat, someone says "look, up in the sky, it's a bird, it's a plane," and I think that kind of line does characterize Superman and does a good job of reminding the reader that he's from Kansas.
CA: How do you get into that headspace of writing Superman?
SS: It's challenging in some ways. He's a more difficult character to get under his skin, because he has such a strong compass and his cast supports that. He's not someone like Batman, in some ways, who has more of a pathology to him on the surface that you can pick at.
But here, I really wanted to make an accusation against him that, for me, had teeth. That's what I try to do with the characters: figure out something that I'm terrified of about them. A flaw, or something that, if not a flaw, is a question that cuts to the heart of something I love and that I'm curious about. Spoilers, but in #3, this guy, Wraith -- and his name is just an acronym for William Rudolph's Ace In The Hole, that's the name of the general who first used him when he landed -- in 1938, when the world was on the brink of war, these scientists sent a message up into space that was this mathematical equation that added up to more than it was supposed to, and the message was meant to be "help us be better."
Eleven seconds after that, the ship lands and this guy gets out who has a physiology similar to Superman's, he's not from Krypton or anything like that, but he's been part of American military history from 1939 until very recently. General Lane puts a map up and says "look how dangerous the world was then, Superman. Look at it now. When you landed, we thought you were another one, but you're just a disappointment. What you need to hear all the time is applause, the sound of clapping and adulation, and deep down you're a coward because you know you could take out that warlord in East Africa if you could do it secretly, and you know you would change things geopolitically, but you need to be the hero that everyone loves. This guy's the real Superman."
The guy is physically stronger than Superman, he's a big brother figure in a lot of ways. He has powers that Superman doesn't, and he tells him "don't worry, you'll learn how to do this in a few years. It just takes a little longer for the petawatts in your cells to develop." And then he uses it against Superman, who gets punched across the state of Utah in the next issue.
We really want to give the story some teeth, and I don't want it to just be popcorn, I want it to be the story that, if I got to tell one Superman story, this is it. I want to get under your skin, and there is an element of Superman that he's terrified that he doesn't do enough in that way. Historically, I do think it's a grey area. Would he get involved in World War II? That's what inspired it, when I went back to Siegel and Shuster, where he was fighting Nazis. I don't think he'd let the death camps go, but would he get involved today? I don't know. It's an interesting area for me, exploring it, and that's why I chose that narration to begin with. You'll see that concept of the "cold leap" come back later, but it's about him having to make decisions that are case-by-case and human and wrenching for him. Like deciding how to save the building in #2.
CA: I loved that scene. We talk about Batman a lot, but reading Superman Unchained, particularly #2, I hadn't realized that you clearly love that character as much as you do. That scene where he saves the building, and the panel where he figures out what he can do to save most of the people but some of them will die, and then within half a second discards that and figures out how to save Superman is one of the perfect moments for the character.
SS: Thanks. And I'll be honest, because why not, but DC actually changed that scene for a moment, and I think the worry was that I was making him too unsure. We changed it back. I was like, that has to be there, it has to be that he doesn't know how to do it and people might die because he might make the wrong decision. He actually chooses something that would save most people but not everybody before he figures out how to do it, and I think that's my favorite moment in the issue. He makes that mistake, and he figures out how to correct it, but he needs to make those choices in a visceral way in this book. That's what it's about: One man trying to do the right thing on a global stage.
He's not someone who says "I always do the right thing!" He looks at a case like Ascension, and in the story, I thought about using North Korea or Iran, and it became too muddy and topical, and topical in a way that I thought would be dated. Those politics are so complicated and so interesting that it just felt like it would constrain it. In the same way that the Red Hood Gang in Batman is a stand-in for random violence and large-scale terrorism that you see in cities today, Ascension is a stand-in for the type of situation where the government needs to go after them for doing horrifying, global things in a way that Superman has to decide "do I agree with this, or not? Do I stand in the way and become an enemy of the state, or of the globe?
CA: I'm glad they left it in. A lot of creators try to humanize Superman in weird ways like having him walk across a country, but that shows his responsibility. But let's talk about Batman for a minute. Let's talk about this hat.
SS: My wife got me this hat when I started on Detective. I wear it when I run and stuff, it usually looks salty, but I brought it because my hair was awful. Everyone's like "You can't wear that! It's like wearing the shirt of the band you're in, you loser!" I was like "I love Geoff and he always wears a Green Lantern hat! Can't I wear Batman?" and they said "If you want to" so I got all insecure like high school.
CA: It would make things so much easier at cons if you guys would just identify yourselves by hats.
SS: I know. I would do it. Everyone's telling me that I'm lame and I look like a poser.
CA: So, "Zero Year." It's a Batman origin with bright colors.
SS: It is, and you'll see in the "Director's Cut" of the first issue, which always makes me uncomfortable because they publish my script and there's always things in there that I'm embarrassed by in those. I'm still learning, dude, I'm only three or four years in, and your flaws are on display on this giant scale most of the time. But yes, the reason that it's big and bright is that DC essentially came to us and said "Batman needs an origin. There's no origin in the New 52." I said "Yes there is. It's Year One." They said "But it can't be Year One, because James Jr. would be six years old, Catwoman has a different origin, the Falcone gang is different. Do you guys want to do it or should we ask someone else." I said "there's no way you're asking someone else to write that Goddamn story. There is no way."
I had this early years story in mind that became the "Zero Year" story, and I tried to reclaim and save all these pieces of Year One, but what really happened, and this is true, is that I called Greg and James up, called Lemire up, and said "this isn't working." They told me that I needed to abandon the pieces that I was trying to save and stop trying to do a pale imitation of Year One as a reclamation project, and do it my way. As much as Year One is a masterpiece that I could never touch, I have to do it my way, and our way.
The story is very much about Batman growing up in a modern city, with the fears that were very potent for me growing up in New York in the '80s. Year One means a lot to me because I couldn't go on the subway, and I couldn't go to Times Square -- and I did, to get fake IDs and all that bulls**t and got flashed all the time -- and I couldn't go to Central Park because of gangs and violence and prostitution and drugs and all that. The urban decay, and the feeling that I had as a kid, that's all very real.
It doesn't look that way now. Of course there are the same issues, but people are more afraid of other things in the city. That's what the Red Hood Gang represents, and in this coming issue, they articulate that in a big way. Bruce, actually in a lot of ways -- and this is a spoiler -- the death of his parents inspires that. The Red Hood says "when I was a foster kid, I remember the night your parents died because it was the first night my parents came home with a Saturday Night Special and the ones next door bought a lock for the door. It's the random violence, the stuff that doesn't make sense, the sirens on a bright, sunny Saturday morning when you see smoke and an explosion from nowhere, that's what scares people. That's why I made this beautiful gang. We wear red hoods like Little Red Riding Hood, and we invite the wolf. Invite the violence and say it's going to happen. You inspired that, Bruce." And then he does something so horrible that I don't want to say what it is.
We do the bat moment in a different way in that issue. You're going to see it, and I'm really proud of it. It's Batman forming right now.
CA: A friend of mine mentioned that for him, it reminded him of Batman Begins, but with the Year One stuff stripped out. It's all weird technology and weird crimes, and I really like that feel. Year One, which I love, is an origin for Noir Batman, and this feels like an origin for Superhero Batman.
SS: For better or worse, and you guys might hate it out there, but I hope you love it as much as we do. Those choices are made carefully. The bright palette is in the script that you'll see, embarrassingly enough. It's supposed to be a young, rock 'n' roll outlaw Batman who's a symbol of resistance in this city.
In #24, he gives a speech about "What Do You Love About Gotham?" You saw that refrain in the first part, and it's a big thing. Why would he be there? It's where his parents died. But what he loves about Gotham is because as a kid, he went there and he could become whatever he wanted. Sometimes he didn't want to be Bruce Wayne, but we go to cities and wherever we end up to try to transform ourselves into the people we hope we can be that someone told us we can't, and maybe that person is ourselves that says you can't. You go there to be challenged and burn down into the person that you want to evolve into. Batman is a symbol of terror to villains, and he definitely is in that Miller version, but he's also an outlaw spirit, and a spirit that says you can be the maddest pinnacle of human achievement. You can be the best detective, the best chemist, the best fighter, all of this, something a human body should never be, and you can soar. That teaches people that are beaten down in Gotham all the time to keep going.
He's the Mad Knight to me, in addition to being the Dark Knight, you know? That, to me, is why it's rock 'n' roll. He's telling them to resist, get up and don't be afraid. In that way, Gotham is your antagonist, it says "I'm going to break you and beat you down, but I'm going to make you the best hero possible."