I Can Do That, I Write Batman: Tom King On ‘I Am Gotham’ And The Future Of ‘Batman’
Tom King and David Finch's relaunch of Batman might be the most interesting and unexpected comic book of DC's Rebirth. Released biweekly, the opening arc told the story of a pair of new heroes, Gotham and Gotham Girl, who arrived in Batman's hometown with powers far beyond those of mortal men, and with hopes of permanently changing things for the better. And as you already know if you've read those first five issues, it did not go so well.
Now, with an epilogue to "I Am Gotham" set to hit shelves next week, ComicsAlliance spoke to Tom King about the villains he's bringing back to the spotlight, the reasons behind the final fate of Gotham and Gotham Girl, and why Colonel Blimp was there all along --- and we just didn't see him.
WARNING: The following interview contains significant spoilers for next week's Batman #6, as well as the first arc, "I Am Gotham."
ComicsAlliance: I wasn't sure how I expected you to end your first story on Batman, but I do know that I didn't expect to see the return of Colonel Blimp and Stingaree.
Tom King: [Laughs] Really? That wasn't on the itinerary? I thought that was such an obvious twist! But Kite-Man, you were all over that?
CA: Oh, Kite-Man, I fully expected. I've been waiting for him for a while.
TK: I blame [editor] Andy Khouri, he suggested all these guys to me.
CA: Really? I expected that since you were bringing back characters like the Psycho Pirate and Hugo Strange, a character who goes all the way back to Batman's very first year of publication, that you had just stumbled across these guys while doing research on old Batman villains.
TK: I mean, yes, that's exactly what I've been doing. They told me about the Batman gig, and I've been a Batman reader for my whole life, but my knowledge is not as encyclopedic as I would've liked it to be. There's so much to know about Batman! There's 75 years, and the continuity is complicated, so I started diving in, reading as much Batman as I could and exploring all the characters, trying to look up old things.
I feel like there's so much that happens to Batman between the panels. We only show the main story, but every night, he's fighting three other villains that we're not showing. I wanted to show these villains that just don't live in the foreground, and are always there in Gotham City. It's built to pay tribute to the history and have something fun in a story that's a little bit depressing.
CA: The reason I bring up Colonel Blimp in particular is that you give him the line "I've stolen your submarine... again!" You brought Batman #352 right back into continuity.
TK: [Laughs] I feel like once you steal one submarine, you just want to do it again. Once you're on the submarine-stealing route of your life, it's hard to get off that path. You can go to Submarine Stealers Anonymous, but they have a poor track record if you look at it.
CA: So did you just sit down with Showcase Presents Batman, or the Chronicles paperbacks, or just dig up back issues at cons? Where did you go to start doing research on that character?
TK: I started with my own collection. I have a huge trade collection that contains a ton of Batman, most of which I've read once but hadn't read in a while. I re-read those, and then I went to the reference books. Batman has so many fantastic reference books that have been published over the past 20 years, so I went and read through those. And then last, I went on the computer and looked up some stuff.
But I went through all of his past villains and tried to think of, "What aspects of this, if we took it seriously, would start to become dangerous enough that the comedy aspects will be funny again?" You don't want it to just be pure comedy. Camp has to arrive out of something real, it can't just arrive out of something ironic, otherwise you're just making fun of people.
With Stingaree, it's the easiest one, right? He has the stupidest story, but it's also the darkest, craziest story. He's one of a set of quadruplets, but he goes crazy and thinks he's a pirate, and thinks that his three brothers are secretly Batman and he has to kill them. On one level, that's the stupidest thing you've ever heard of. On another level, that's also the most psychotic thing you've ever heard of. It has this dangerous level to it. I looked for villains who have that sort of double edge to them.
CA: That, I think, leads us to Gotham and Gotham Girl. Obviously, the dynamic is a riff on Superman and Batman, to the point where you reference All Star Superman directly, which I think might be the most shocking moment in comics this year.
TK: I'm glad most people got it! I was hoping they would. It wasn't exactly a deep cut, but it wasn't the most obvious.
The actual whole story started with that moment. It started with me talking to the editors about the differences between Gotham City and Metropolis. We talked about how in Metropolis, Superman saves somebody, and they thank him, and then in Gotham, you can save someone and they go off and shoot someone immediately. We had that one image in mind.
Obviously, I'm a huge fan of All Star Superman, and especially that page. It's the most inspiring five panels you can put in a comic, so I wanted to pay tribute to that. I wanted to say, "That's a beautiful moment in Metropolis, but in Gotham, it's a little different."
CA: I remember that when the story first started, I was talking to ComicsAlliance contributor Matt D. Wilson about it, and he said immediately, "Gotham's going to die and Gotham Girl's going to stick around."
TK: Oh, really? Aw, man!
CA: Obviously, you've set up in the end of #5, where you have Gotham Girl narrating from the future, that she's going to be around for a long time. What set her apart in the way that Gotham wasn't?
TK: Some of my favorite stories are stuff where you're watching one thing, and you think you know what's going on, and then there's a twist to it where you're like, "Oh, this whole thing wasn't what I thought it would be." I knew that so many people would bring assumptions into Batman that I wanted to play with, especially with David Finch drawing such a muscular Batman. They'd bring assumptions that we were leaning into clichés, and then we'd reverse them.
The classic comic cliché is that a new superhero comes in, and there's a woman in peril, and she dies and they learn a lesson from it, and then they go off. Your focus is on the new strapping, big white dude. I wanted to reverse that. Everybody thinks they're watching the origin of Gotham, but they're actually seeing the origin of Gotham Girl, this character who seems peripheral, whose origin seems like it's less important, and she's actually much more important.
But I guess Matt saw through the whole thing! That's the problem with avoiding clichés --- when you avoid them, people start to expect you to avoid them. I should just lean into them and no one will see what's coming.
CA: There has to be a level where that feels good, though. "Oh, Tom King's not doing the standard thing, Tom King's putting the new twist on it!"
TK: I'll take that, too! We tried to do that with the whole thing. Gotham's powers were crazily different from issue to issue, and people were complaining about them, saying, "Oh, it's because they're drawing whatever they want to draw." That was actually the mystery, his powers were purposefully different in every issue, and that was part of it, how his powers worked. We were trying to do stuff like that, a twist at the end, so that what people thought they were seeing wasn't what they were seeing.
CA: In this issue, as we see all of these different villains, the main focus is on Gotham Girl and how she deals with that tragedy, and she deals with it in a way that we don't really see too often in superhero comics. With superheroes, it's usually a matter of gritting their teeth or getting too brutal, like Batman after Jason Todd was killed. But here, with Gotham Girl, her superheroism isn't affected. She's actually shown to be very effective. It comes through as very personal --- she shaves her head, she talks to herself. Why did you choose to go that route?
TK: Everyone does grief in their own way. I can't possibly summarize or write someone else's grief, so I just focused on how I did my own grief. When my mother died, and more recently, just as this issue was coming together, my grandmother who helped to raise me died, and I didn't really lose my daily routine. I didn't suddenly stop working, because I couldn't stop working, right? I still need money, my kids still need to eat. But I did find myself doing things that were just a little off.
I'd find myself talking out loud, talking to my grandmother. Not in a crazy way --- or maybe it was in a crazy way --- but just, "Why am I doing this?" It seems insane, but I was still doing it. I took the way I handled grief and put it into Gotham Girl, and hoped some truth came out of it. It's as simple as that.
I think other people react differently and throw things at walls, but when people close to me die, I kept going about my basic routine, but something inside me was broken. It came out in a really strange way.
CA: In the Superman books right now, we're seeing Doomsday, the Eradicator, a lot of stuff that's inspired by The Death of Superman. Not to spoil it too much, but when I got to this issue and discovered that Bane is on the way back, I was wondering if in 2016, we're going to get the return of Knightfall, too.
TK: [Laughs] Well, I think the people to blame for it are ComicsAlliance! Bane comes out of a conversation I had with [current DC editor and former CA editor] Andy Khouri when he was my editor on Omega Men. He said, "Have you ever taken a close look at Bane?" I said, "Yeah, when I was a kid, I really liked that story, it was really frightening," and he was like, "No, I mean have you ever really looked at that Chuck Dixon issue with his actual origin? Read it again, it's the most f---ed up thing ever."
It wasn't just that he was born in a prison, it was that he was born and stayed in this cell for 17 years, and every night, it flooded and he almost drowned, and he had to tread water and eat raw fish. Just the willpower of surviving, that his origin is like Conan's origin, pushing that wheel until he's the only one left.
Andy totally sold me on that origin, and I realized that this character, the reason he was frightening and cool as a kid, was that he actually could beat Batman in a way that the Riddler, the Joker, the Penguin and Mr. Freeze, none of them will ever beat Batman on any real level. Bane's actually done it and could do it again.
I wanted to read a comic where the two of them faced off, and one of them had to die. I was like, "Wait a second, I can do that. I write Batman."
CA: Can you tell us anything about that story coming up?
TK: I can reveal that the second arc is called "I Am Suicide," and as you see from the end of #6, that's Batman forming his own Suicide Squad to take Psycho Pirate back from Bane. Psycho Pirate is the only way you can cure Gotham Girl, so Batman is becoming more and more obsessed with finding a cure for all the hopes he put into Gotham and Gotham Girl.
Our third arc will be called "I Am Bane," and it's the repercussions of Batman's illegal mission into Bane's territory to steal Psycho Pirate, and what goes wrong and what goes right in that mission.