10: The War of Jokes and More Jokes
I’ve been sitting at my computer for a good twenty minutes now trying to find my way into a few big ideas that have been at the back of my mind for a while now.
I think I’m just going to stumble, messily, through them and see what comes from it, so bear with me.
Yesterday, a couple of friends took Sam & I on a journey into Long Island to visit the Round1 Arcade in Hicksville. For those of you who don’t know, Round1 is a Japanese chain. They have bowling alleys and karaoke rooms, claw machines that you can actually win things from, and lots and lots of arcade games.
It’s a geek space. Effectively, it’s a geekier Dave & Busters. It was a lot of fun, even though I am terrible at everything that isn’t a racing game. Thankfully, my broken wrist and messed up knee saved me from having to embarrass myself on anything as daring as a Dance Dance Revolution machine… So I was mostly just having a few beers and enjoying the ambiance of the place. I especially enjoyed how busy it was on a Saturday night, forty five minutes outside of Brooklyn, in the New York City suburbs. They did not have a Batman photobooth, but they did have one of these…
And as Sam racked up slots on the leaderboard of Big Buck Hunter HD, I was looking around at the people who would come to this kind of place on a Saturday night. And to be honest, it was a very familiar crowd. It’s a crowd I see often. At every comic book signing. At every comic convention.
These are the folks who have probably watched a cartoon in the last year. Who have bought a handful of video games. Who have a favorite horror movie, and a favorite superhero movie and who could tell you why. They are mostly in their late-teens to early thirties (effectively, post-high school, pre-having children). They probably have a few fun party games at home, in the mode of Cards Against Humanity. There were guys with ponytails waiting in line for DDR. Girls with blue hair and nose rings waiting for a chance to play the claw machine that might nab them an Evangelion statuette. Folks considering whether to spend their tickets on a Pickle Rick neck pillow or a Nightmare Before Christmas hat. Or a few Funko Pops. They are probably all a little bit intense about the things they like, and while they’re not necessarily collectors of physical objects, they are collectors of interests. They choose their specialties, whether it’s Magic Cards, or Harry Potter, or what have you, and in their friend group they are the person who knows the most about that.
These are the geeks.
These are OUR people. These are the folks we want to come to the comic shop every Wednesday and pick up our comics.
But they don’t.
Not most of them, anyways….
I’d bet you a lot of the people in that Round1 have read a couple comics or manga, recommended by a friend, but I’d also bet you that most of them haven’t been to a dedicated comic shop. If they’ve been, it’s only maybe once a year. Maybe once every couple of months in very rare cases. And they’re more likely to buy a toy or a deck of Magic cards than a comic. They may have been to New York Comic Con once or twice, but more to experience a kind of Geek Mecca, than to specifically support comics. And when they go to New York Comic Con, they normally go knowing what they want to get.
If they are a Deadpool fan, they are showing up to get a totem of their Deadpool fandom, and then they are going home.
I’ve been having a conversation with some of my comic creator friends for a while, where I ask them to picture the bookshelf of the average Geek. Someone in that 18-35 range. Someone who has a bit of a disposable income, but nothing crazy… I’m not talking about the die-hard collectors who have bookcases and bookcases, I’m talking about the much more common occurrence where there’s one bookcase, and more commonly, one shelf of “geek stuff” in the whole house. It’s the shelf they’ll decorate with a couple (and only a couple) of action figures or funko pops. But let’s be generous, and say that they have a whole geek bookcase, four shelves high, and they’ve put their video games, DVDs, board games, and Harry potter books on three out of the four shelves, and they’ve dedicated one full shelf to comic books.
One shelf. Let’s call that twenty-five trade paperbacks, total.
Let’s get a few classics up on that shelf. Let’s say they get a copy of Watchmen, V For Vendetta, the one volume edition of Bone, Batman Year One, and The Dark Knight Returns. That’s close to a mainstream comics starter set, and are perennial best sellers. So, one fifth of that shelf are the classics. Let’s say on top of the classics, this person is a die-hard Batman fan. So they go a step further with Batman. They get Court of Owls, Hush, Black Mirror, Arkham Asylum, and The Long Halloween. That’s 10/25. They like the Marvel movies, so they pick up five contemporary trades from Marvel (since Marvel tends not to keep the classics in print), pushing them to 15/25. They’re a connoisseur now, so they pick out an Image title that catches their attention (Maybe The Walking Dead, since they’ve heard of it as a TV show), and pick up five volumes of that, or they pick up five volume ones of different books. And then because they want to show the folks at the comic shop they’ve got some breadth to their tastes, and don’t JUST like the mainstream stuff, they pick up a few artsy Graphic Novels. Let’s call them Persepolis, Fun Home, Maus, Black Hole, and Jimmy Corrigan. These are the “See, Ma? Comic books are art!” books.
Now, the sets might be different. Might have random DC rather than Random Marvel. Deadpool might be their diehard favorite rather than Batman, or they might go for a block of Rick and Morty trades. They might pick a favorite writer or artist instead of a favorite character. They might have a YA block of five rather than the literary block of five… But that’s twenty five books.
And that’s their shelf, full.
If they’re really hooked, they get to work filling a second shelf, and maybe they try to follow a few monthly comics if they have extra money floating around. They probably can’t keep it up if they start having kids and extra costs, and they phase out, and choose to revisit their shelf when they want that fix. Maybe they cycle one or two books off their shelf per year after that.
And those are the DREAM customers
More often? The folks in that Round1 only have a couple of comic trades on that geek shelf, and because they started with ones that didn’t connect with them, they don’t go beyond two or three.
Or they have 25 volumes of manga on that shelf, because it’s easier to understand where to start without somebody telling you. It used to be, even just 10 years ago, that certain fans couldn’t fill those shelves with books that reflected who they are, but even that’s started to change. The folks who want 25 queer comics of all shapes and sizes, can fill a shelf today like never before. But once they fill it, it’s filled.
If they go to a comic convention, they might broaden their collection by buying a book and getting it signed, because then it doesn’t go on a shelf, it goes in a frame. It’s a totem of fandom like a Deadpool print or a Joker Funko Pop, rather than a book on a shelf. But it’s treated like that, too. They get slabbed or framed and serve a wholly different purpose than readable entertainment.
But our dream audience has 25 slots on a bookshelf, and most of the lists they find online about how to fill those slots will recommend they fill more than half of those shelves with comics that came out 30 years ago. Every book we make is fighting for space on a shelf against Frank Miller, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison and every great creator that followed.
Our entire industry is built on the people who decide to branch out beyond the first shelf, but exponential growth isn’t possible. It’s only the rarest cases when people can have a Beauty and the Beast style library. And this also goes for the people who pick up single issues… Once you have a stack of longboxes, the moment is going to come where you have “enough” comics, and every new comic that comes out needs to be better than the ones in those boxes in order to be worth it. And as tastes change, you’re more likely to prefer to go back and read old favorites than read something new.
So every year, comic creators are fighting for shelf space against every comic that has ever come out (especially since so many continue to be in print), and every comic that CONTINUES to come out. And comic shops are fighting against the fact that everyone can fill up those 25 slots on Amazon or at Barnes & Noble.
I think about this a lot when I’m writing Batman.
Because holy shit are there a lot of Batman comics out there! If you’re just doing what’s been done a hundred times before, you’re not going to get on that shelf. They can GET the book you’re riffing on and put it on the shelf. So it takes something crazy or innovative to catch a reader’s attention, and decide whether it deserves one of those five Batman slots. And that’s just the comics….
I was talking to Scott Snyder about the difference between when he started on Detective Comics, and me starting on Batman (2011 v 2020). When Scott started there had only been Two theatrical Batman movies in the previous decade, and Four Animated Movies.
In the following 9 years, there were Five movies featuring Batman or Bruce Wayne, a staggering Thirty-Eight Animated Movies Featuring Batman (and I’m probably miscounting on Wikipedia, there may be more). There was A five season Gotham TV show. Appearances and mentions on various other TV shows, live action and animated. Not to mention a decade of Scott Snyder Batman comics, and a bunch of Tom King Batman comics, and all the other Batman comics that have come out, including my own. And Video Games! And more!
So I’m not just fighting the comics, I’m fighting a multi-media Batman empire, for limited shelf-space. And I’m trying to figure out what I can offer that isn’t being offered elsewhere.
This is a long way to get to there’s a huge incentive to create something new like Punchline. Create a compelling character with a cool design that readers can ONLY get from your comic. If you can make a new character their favorite character, you might get some shelf-space… And if their favorite character is The Joker? Maybe you can pull together a bunch of cool Joker elements in a configuration they haven’t seen before and do something Shelf-worthy.
And that’s on the most salacious comic book character that exists. That’s Batman. Everyone and their mother know who Batman is. For other characters, folks might only give them ONE slot out of 25. And it’s probably already filled.
But the readers exist. The geeks are out there.
One thing I found interesting going to Round1, as opposed to the Barcades that have popped up everywhere, is that there weren’t a lot of classic arcade games. There were a few, sure, and a couple of remixes of old games, but there was a startling amount of new and different games. Folks weren’t there to revisit something from their childhood, they were there to have fun in the moment. They weren’t there for nostalgia or reflection, they were there to be entertained in the here and now.
And I wonder if that’s what we’re missing. If we’re spending too much time navel-gazing.
I predict there will always be a market for Batman comics, just like there will always be a market for Sherlock Holmes. Or Peter Pan. Or Dracula. The great characters stick around, they outlast us all, even if they come in and out of popularity in waves… But for the Sherlock Holmes fan, it would take a very daring, surprising take on Holmes to let that take find its way onto to their shelf, let alone to push off one of the Arthur Conan Doyle classics.
Shouldn’t we be trying to create our own new characters? Heroes of all stripes, not just Superheroes. Dynamic characters with vibrant personalities and cool looks, that readers want posters of and want to commission artists to draw? Shouldn’t we be creating whole new mythologies for readers to get lost in, rather than crowding old mythologies with more story? Are we drowning the Superhero genre with a glut of content, when we’ve already hit critical mass?
I think that’s the secret of Manga’s success in the US, and it outstripping western comics globally. They aren’t singular. They don’t cannibalize each other. If your favorite thing is Death Note, you start with volume one and you keep reading until it’s over. You don’t get an unlabeled volume that requires you to know 30 years of convoluted, contradictory continuity. Which doesn’t mean they don’t want the things that made us love superhero comics to begin with…
They want the soap opera, the big characters, the big stakes, the action, and the stunning art. They want a bit of sex and danger. They want worlds they can get lost in, and fall in love with the characters, and feel and think things they don’t feel and think in their day to day lives. Any trappings standing in the way of that are a barrier.
Manga’s success is entirely because we’ve created like a hundred barriers to protect a certain way of doing comics. They are a mass market product, with thick 200 page black and white volumes that sell for the cost of two of our 20 page floppy single issues.
Sometimes it feels like rather than fighting for the mass market, fighting to get those 25 slots, we’re staking everything on the rare readers who give comics multiple bookcases. The ones who have a few hundred trades, and come to shops a few times a month or even weekly. And we’re missing out on the larger geek audience that exists.
Which isn’t to say we SHOULDN’T make stuff for that smaller audience, but we need to recognize its size and its limitations.
If you’re a high schooler, and you grew up with Raina Telgemeier, and you’re ready for comics. You’re in college or just out of it, or working, and you finally have your own space with a bookshelf you choose to fill however you want… You are a geek, and you want to find your own unique set of 25 comic books that represent the kind of geek you are…
What are WE doing as creators and companies to get you to choose our books, rather than ones from decades ago, or ones made on the other side of the planet? How are we holding the door open to you, and giving you something that isn’t just the same thing your dad grew up with, or your grandpa, or great grandpa?
How do we create the new characters that break through the noise, characters who haven’t made the jump to other media, how can we make readers fall in love with the new, and convince them to lend us some shelf-space?
I think these are questions a lot of creators and companies need to be asking themselves.
So, on that note, let me try and sell you some comic books.
DC Solicits for May came out this past week, and the JOKER WAR I’ve been hinting at (er, directly referring to) for a while just got officially announced. It’ll be running in Batman from issues #95-100. There’s a very dramatic hook at the end of #94 (and not the one hinted at on the cover), and that dramatic hook is going to invert the usual dynamics of a major Joker attack on Gotham. Joker’s got the resources to attack the city and Batman beyond anything he’s had before.
Jorge Jimenez will be main artist of Joker War, and the pages he’s turning in are absolutely phenomenal. I can’t wait to show off more, but I should wait until we get a little closer… Before then, you’ll get a taste of Jorge’s Gotham in the pages of Batman #90, out in just a couple of weeks. He helps us tell a story in the past, which is why we got to use my favorite Catwoman costume ever. He will also be giving us an in-depth glimpse at the big bad of Their Dark Designs… THE DESIGNER, himself…
The Solicits also mean you can order this amazing Artgerm variant cover to Batman #94. Featuring everyone’s favorite new character they haven’t met yet, PUNCHLINE. Did I post that in this newsletter yet? Because it’s fucking awesome.
I thought for this newsletter, I might show you the original email I wrote to Jorge back in early December, when we officially signed him on to the project, and asked if he could design two brand new characters for us…
First off, I just want to say, I am insanely excited to work with you on BATMAN. It’s been a long time since we’ve gotten a chance to do something solo together. I’m still so happy whenever a fan brings up a copy of Amazing X-Men #13.
I’m excited to get your first script over to you later this month, but in the meantime, Ben, Dave and I were hoping you could take a crack at designing two big new Batman villain characters. And to do that, I wanted to pass over some thematic thoughts about what we’re doing in this run. I’ll go in a bit more depth at the start of the first script, but I wanted to give you a little to work with.
The two words I keep using to describe this run is “Action Horror.” We’re doing big scary vehicles, a bloody joker, and letting the villains be as scary as they can be, but all in a kind of over the top fun way… After the Pathos of the Tom King run, we’re trying to do something with a lot more energy. Our colorful characters are going to do horribly violent and colorful things, and we’re going to make that fun to read. We want to scare people, and have them cheer a bit. We’re introducing exciting new vehicles, and as you’ll see below, new villains.
We’re not going camp or tongue-in-cheek, but I think the key is tapping into the fact that people love the horror side of Batman stories and not enough comics tap into it. It’s being a bit grindhouse. Leaning into the blood and sex and vehicles and gadgets. Big scary colorful villains, doing big scary colorful things. Not in a gross, exploitative way… But also not in a deconstructed, meta way that saps the life out of it. Joker’s going to be doing all of this in a bright purple suit.
I hope that all makes sense. Basically, it’s supposed to be a fun, scary superhero comic book. Fun being the key word.
Okay, onto the characters.
CHARACTER #1: THE DESIGNER
This is the big villain of the first arc of the story, “THEIR DARK DESIGNS.” The gist is that he was a master criminal, who operated around the world, and is an urban legend among thieves and criminals.
They called him the greatest criminal mastermind of the 20th century. His identity was a mystery. He would create “Puppets” of people he could control and kill remotely to perform his crimes, and never get caught. He’d be old… In his 60s when he first came to Gotham, but he is a very in-shape 60-year old.
In our story, we’ll learn that years ago he recruited Joker, Penguin, Riddler, and Catwoman to help him perform his big final act. The biggest heist in all of history. But when they realized he planned to kill them, they killed him first. And then he starts to make his play in the present day, and the Bat-villains need to figure out how the hell that’s possible.
In terms of his look, I’m going to throw a lot of contradictory ideas at you and see what you come back with… I’m more trying to evoke the spirit of the character. You should take all of it as inspiration, and see what you cook up.
If they did a Metal Gear Solid x Final Fantasy x Silent Hill crossover game, and the villain of that game was meant to be The actual, honest-to-god Devil… That’s the kind of character I’m looking to create here. This should be a character with some complicated costume elements (to counter the simplicity of the Gotham Villains). He is not simple, he is ornate. And he should be scary.
When I picture him, he has a mask not unlike the mask of “Friend” from 20th Century Boys (seen below). A white cloth mask over his face (not a mummy bandage wrap like Hush). There should be a symbol on his face… Maybe an ornate gothic “D” in red.
His costume should look like an ornate general or emperor’s military uniform that simultaneously looks like it’s from a hundred years in the past and a hundred years in the future. Ornate armored shoulder plates… An ornate scarlet cape. Maybe some black feathers coming out from under the shoulder plates. He has a giant sword, but also a few guns in ornate holsters on his chest. A little bit Sephiroth from Final Fantasy VII, a little bit Edea from Final Fantasy VIII, a little bit Auron from Final Fantasy X… But with a final dash of Metal Gear Solid militarism, and a bit of horror.
The feel should be that THE DESIGNER is walking out of a different kind of comic book into Batman, a different aesthetic world entirely. There should be something eerie about The Joker, and The Penguin existing in the same space as this character. Something inherently WRONG about it. He is a different level of evil.
The key is for the first part of the year, regardless of the final reveal, is that this story should feel like Batman vs. The Devil.
CHARACTER #2: PUNCHLINE
This is a fun one, and I think could have the potential to be a real breakout character if we handle her correctly.
She is, essentially, Joker’s new girlfriend. And she is Harley Quinn’s polar opposite. She is Joker’s #2… A silent, terrifying serial killer, sexy as hell. All of his henchmen are terrified of her and they should be. Imagine Joker being Joker and torturing a hostage, and then he gets tired and sighs, handing the scalpel to Punchline, who slits their throat.
We don’t want to base her costume off either Joker or Harley’s too much, but there should be a bit of a clown component to her. Maybe she has a porcelain mask, but that might be too cheesy. We don’t want her to just be anti-Harley Quinn, and we don’t just want her to be female joker. We don’t want to evoke The Batman Who Laughs or the Dark Multiverse with somebody who looks like she steps out of Hellraiser.
When she smiles, it’s scary. It’s not a toothy smile, it’s a closed mouth grin. She is a sadist. She enjoys killing people. She is talented at killing people. The Joker calls her the funniest person he’s ever met in his life. She is a physical character, and she should be sexy. Sexy in a slinkier, darker way than Harley, who is all pep and energy.
I think her primary weapon should be her knives and her fists. I see her colors being purple and black.
Like in the fucked up Archie Comics where The Joker is Archie, and Harley Quinn is Betty, then Punchline is Veronica. If Harley is the Angel on The Joker’s shoulder, Punchline should be the devil.
Okay. See what you cook up based on that, and Ben and Dave, please pipe in if there are any questions or concerns!
From that email, Jorge delivered these two beauties…
I don’t think there’s a better feeling in the world than getting a character design in your inbox… And I don’t think either Jorge or I expected Punchline to hit as hard as she has… The fact that we’ve seen a dozen or so cosplayers tackle her already is just incredible.
And then there’s the fact that BATMAN #89 and YEAR OF THE VILLAIN: HELL ARISEN #3 have both sold out before they come out… A partial appearance, and her full-body appearance, those two coming out in the next couple weeks. Fair warning, she’s operating in the background as a secondary figure these next few issues, and comes to the forefront in BATMAN #92. From there she becomes the real underboss to the Joker, and will be key in Joker War, not only in the Batman title, but across the line. I think you can already see her on the cover to May’s Nightwing.
I saw some grumbling about playing to speculators, but the honest truth is I've created a shit ton of characters for DC, and have never had this kind of response! This caught everyone off guard, but I’m grateful to Ben Abernathy and the Bat-Office for seeing that we were onto something and doubling down, helping make her break through.
I’ll be revealing her origin, so-to-speak, in the Joker 80th Anniversary Special coming out in April. Which is also where you’ll learn her real name.
Real Talk - If you show up at my table at a convention this year as Punchline or Erica Slaughter, (or honestly, any of my characters), I will give you a free thing from my table!
Batman is a whole big crazy beast, and it’s been a wild ride so far, but the response from all of you has made it worth it. I’m working my ass off to give you a book worthy of the shelf-space I talked about in the previous section.
IN STORES THIS WEEK
Art by Carlo Pagulayan & Danny Miki, and Guillem March
Colors by Tomeu Morey
Letters by Clayton Cowles
Edited by Ben Abernathy & David Wielgosz
Cover A by Tony S. Daniel
Cover B by Francesco Mattina
This one has already sold out on the distributor level, so you might want to get to your comic shop early… Beautiful, beautiful work in this one by Carlo, Danny, and Guillem, all colored masterfully by Tomeu, and lettered expertly by Clayton Cowles. All the words in the balloons and captions are unfortunately my fault. This features your first glimpse of not only PUNCHLINE (just a glimpse), but also your first look at THE DESIGNER in the story.
Guillem’s been posting some of the amazing Harley/Catwoman team-up pages, and they are just stunning, so I’m stealing his instagram picture to post it here. . I love writing Harley and Selina together. Harley is VERY VERY good at Banter. This banter and the banter in 92 is probably my favorite in the run so far.
Fun Fact: Tony drew the cover to this issue when the story was still a bit in flux, and him drawing Harley on the cover without asking is what gave me Harley for the arc, improving it immeasurably! Thanks Tony!
So, I’ve got too much on my plate, and I broke my wrist in Grenada, so I’m more behind than I would care to be. That’s why it’s been two weeks since the last of these. Some quick updates…
Something is Killing the Children #5 came out last week, which means the whole first arc is now in stores, and you should hunt them down and read them all because it is a very good book I am very proud of, and holy shit is it beautiful. I talked it up on Twitter because I didn’t get a chance to write one of these newsletters, but you should still go hunt down a copy and read it if you haven’t. There’s a page in there that sets up the whole larger world of the book, and I am wildly excited to share it with you.
I need to put the final touches on Wynd this week before Michael runs out of pages to draw, but holy shit this book is just phenomenal. I just approved layouts for the whole first issue of PROJECT DALLAS this past week. I also sent in character concepts and design thoughts for PROJECT LAKEHOUSE. These two are my next big projects I’ll be getting off the ground this year… I am very excited about both of them.
In all of these books I’m trying to follow the lessons I described at the top of the newsletter. Time well tell if I did it well.
Okay. That’s plenty for this week. If you are buying my books, you are my valentine and I love you.
Two weeks until C2E2! Hope to see some of you there.
James Tynion IV