6: The Land of Yesterday, Tomorrow, and Fantasy

2019, huh?

What a weird year.

I was a part of writing DC’s #1 and #5 top selling comic of the year in Detective #1000 and The Grim Knight. I launched my first creator owned in two years to more success than I ever could have hoped. I successfully lobbied for the chance to write Batman following Tom King. I got to write a comic book that the co-creator of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles helped draw. I got to work on big, event level, cosmos shattering stories in Justice League, and Hell Arisen. I got my first tattoos. My dog lost the ability to walk on her hind legs, and recovered. I herniated a disc in my back and have (mostly) healed from that. My brother got married.

I made more time for friends and family in my life (though not nearly enough). I read more books and comics. Watched more movies. Listened to more music. Had more good conversations about all of them.

But a lot of what made the year really special I can’t talk about just yet.  

I think, looking back, I’m going to see this as a year of decisions. Big, life-changing decisions. Most of those decisions, and how they relate to my career and my life, I’m going to keep vague for the moment. There are big exciting things happening right now, and they deserve my immediate focus and your immediate excitement.

Speaking of which… Batman #86 is in stores next week! Holy Shit!

This was the year where I set things in motion that will shape my 2020s and beyond. And I’m really excited about it.

SOMETHING IS KILLING THE CHILDREN is a harbinger of a lot of the comic book work I plan to do over the next few years. I see it as a kind of turning point for my work. It’s the book that helped me triangulate the kind of comic books I want to spend the next part of my life writing.

I kind of suspect that a few years down the line I’ll forget that it started in 2019, because it’s so much more in line with what’s going to follow, rather than my other works of the 2010s.

BATMANNERY

Batman #86 comes out a week from Wednesday, so… basically I’m going to be insufferable on Twitter for the next nine days. I’ll be banging on all sorts of pots and pans, and showing bits of amazing artwork from Tony S. Daniel, Danny Miki, and Tomeu Morey. This is all to trick you into buying my comic book! So, please, buy my comic book! It has Batman in it doing really cool stuff, and we’ve got a really exciting story!

Issue 86 introduces two of the four new costumed characters I’m creating in my run. You can see them above in the original Daniel/Miki pencils and inks. Assassins by the names of GUNSMITH and MR. TEETH. Here’s what I wrote in the script to Tony as I introduce them. I get more into their specific backstories in Issue 88, and there will be an issue in MAY where you get even more about them.

GUNSMITH should look a bit like a peak Wildstorm character – He has an American flag Bandana covering the bottom of his face. His body is covered in ammunition, and he has three large assault rifles on his back. And it’s clear there are MORE guns all over his person. He looks tough and Military. Stocky build. A former soldier, and former Blackwater style mercenary. If he’s showing any skin, he has a tattoo of a cross on one shoulder and a tattoo of a bald eagle on the other.

MR. TEETH should look like a fucking nightmare. I see his mouth being held open by hooks (NOT in a smile – no Joker or Batman Who Laughs vibe to him), so his teeth are always showing. It’s almost skeletal. He might also have a necklace of teeth around his neck. He is dressed all in strange white. Maybe he’s albino, to boot. Honestly, Tony, just make the creepiest fucking character possible. He is an insane serial killer who realized he was good enough get paid for what he does.

The next two characters who appear in my run are THE DESIGNER, who is the defacto big bad of THEIR DARK DESIGNS, and PUNCHLINE, who is operating in the shadows of this arc and will get her cover debut in the next round of solicits. I’m really really excited for you to meet all of them, but Punchline is the one I am especially eager for you to meet.

I want to show you the Jorge Jimenez design for her, but I think DC Publicity would rise out of their holiday hibernation chambers and send its assassins to get me.

It’s really wild that these books are all finally coming out. I’m sure I’ll be getting very sappy about it during the next newsletter. Right now I am just trying to keep my head on straight. And hell, I have another issue I need to write by next Monday, don’t I?

Anyways. Soon you get to see me tackle Gotham City. I really hope you like it. Here’s an amazing Batman I got in my inbox from Guillem March over the weekend. I also have Jorge Jimenez pages, but they are FULL OF SPOILERS so I can’t show you them! But soon your pull boxes will be filled with the same rad comic book art I get to look at coming in every day.

TALKING HISTORY

As the decade draws to a close, and I feel myself at a kind of turning point in my career, I’ve been looking back a lot at the comics and culture that shaped me. I talked about this a bit in brief on Twitter over the holiday, and I’ll repeat the sentiment here for those who missed it.

Now that we're at the dawn of the 20s, I think we need to start codifying the comics history of the 21st Century in terms of its defining traits and tropes. The 00s and 10s are as crucial as (if not more crucial than) the 80s and 90s to understanding the medium as it is today.

I think it's been a longer road for millennials to reach positions of power in the industry than it was for previous comic creating generations, but we need to start talking a bit more about what made us come into this strange industry, and what we want it to become.

We were in high school and college in the 00s, we were the industry kids fighting for space at the table in the 10s, and now we're going to be the dominant creative force of this next decade. I think that story needs to be told a bit more.

I got one response to the thread saying you need a good twenty years to recognize the tropes of an era, but I don’t think that’s really the case.

90s Comic tropes were so defined they were being commented on and parodied almost immediately. By the time I was in high school and fiddling around on message boards in the early 2000s, there was a strong sense of how the 80s and 90s led to the current moment, even if it was rough and more myth than reality.

In the Superhero world, excess led to Boom and Bust. The sorts of writers who had elevated comics in the 80s had left superheroes to go make comics at Vertigo, the art giants who had fueled the peak at the start of the decade, left to found Image. And the Big Two, lacking direction, just tried to repeat the success of the early 90s over and over with progressively weaker results. There were big exceptions, but in broad strokes, that’s what the industry felt like to a seventh grader in the year 2000, chatting online with the fans who has stuck out the decade.

And then, suddenly, there was this explosion of exciting new content, that reoriented everything.

Even then, I thought of myself more as a DC Fan. I liked the Batman trades I had gotten and read. I had the novelization of No Man’s Land I had swiped from a Cruise Ship Library. But I didn’t have a comic shop near me, so I relied on the mail-order subscription service, and Marvel’s was a LOT better. I had started picking up issues of Wizard Magazine at the local borders and pouring through pages about all sorts of strange and interesting new comics. Every month my Marvel books showed up, and I would fill out the little cardboard sheet it came packaged with back to get MORE comics.

And suddenly, all of these great, vibrant books started showing up in my mailbox.

Morrison/Quitely’s New X-Men. Bendis’ Ultimate Spider-Man with Bagley and Daredevil with Maleev. Millar/Hitch Ultimates. JMS/JRJR Amazing Spider-Man. Simone/UDON Deadpool. Ennis/Dillon Punisher. I wanted to talk to somebody about how cool and interesting these books were, so I dived into the web forums that were huge at the time. And I started asking for rides to the comic shop to pick up the comics I read about that weren’t available through mail order. I remember when the MAX line started and lying to my parents to get my hands on Alias and Supreme Power.

And that, of course, led me to Wildstorm. The Authority and Planetary hit me right in the gut. They were just staggering beasts of ideas. And then there was The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which made me feel smarter than any other Sophomore in High School. I would talk to friends about Allan Quartermain as though I had any idea who he was when I picked up the first volume. That led to the other ABC comics, which led me to Watchmen and V For Vendetta, which led me to all of Vertigo…

And that’s around when DC monthlies started catching my attention. Teen Titans by Johns/McKone pulled me into the fold, and I went on to read everything Johns wrote at the company, and followed the seeds of Identity Crisis, which opened up a whole generation of JL characters I didn’t know existed. As the DC Characters remembered their histories, I learned them for the first time. I filled in the gaps of my DC Knowledge with Morrison/Porter’s JLA, and Waid’s Flash. Somebody on a message board told me to get my hands on Gotham Central and it blew my mind.

It was like Comics just kept peeling open, layer by layer, and it felt like every six months the shelf space at my local Borders Books would double, half with new books, and half with old titles from the 80s I had never heard of. People on message boards would talk about stuff like Miracleman with a mythical air, and that would get me asking my mom to let me go to Wizard World Chicago so I could try and get my hands on one of the issues myself (it ended up being way too expensive, and I would finally get a full collection of them in College). I started biking to the comic book shop 45 minutes away to get the event books and DC books I couldn’t get via subscription, even when my parents wouldn’t drive me.

It felt like it would be until I was a hundred years old until I got through reading all the classic comic book runs I wanted to read. There was always one more volume of Alan Moore. A Warren Ellis miniseries I had never heard of. Simultaneously, in the single issues week to week, everything was building to something. By the time I had a car, and we were jumping One Year Later from an Infinite Crisis, I would bring a giant stack of comics to school on Thursdays that we’d pass around the lunch table. I became my friend group’s lending library and comics evangelist.

It felt like there was this gushing river of great comics that would never end.

And sure, some stories came to beautiful, stunning conclusions, but others kind of just… petered out. Or kept going long past the obvious moment to draw it to a close. The Ultimate Universe that had made me a weekly comics reader, and converted so many non-comic reading friends, became somehow more complex and difficult to follow than the regular Marvel Universe. Fewer friends wanted me to pass those books around the table.

By the mid-2000s, we’d see the that a lot of times in comics, a book might never build to the ending promised. And the crescendo to a major event series loses its power when you know there’s another one just around the corner.

All systems corrode. The center does not hold.

In college, starting in late 2006, I had a MUCH harder time getting my non-comic reading friends to read current, floppy comics. The geek-inclined were more interested in talking about the movies that were getting more and more popular.

They knew the comics were the inspiration for the movies, and something like The Dark Knight might help me get a few of my Batman trades in circulation among friends to help us speculate what villains Nolan might use in a third movie. But it never opened up much past that. Talking to friends about the growing Marvel Cinematic Universe made them interested in the Avengers, but the four volumes of the Millar/Hitch Ultimates was as much as I could get them to flip through. The different line-ups and the big stack of books they needed to read to understand things month-to-month made for difficult conversion.

As college went on, I started bringing fewer Superhero comics with me. There was a moment my lending library system kind of dried up… Until I got my hands on Scott Pilgrim and The Walking Dead. Those, alongside pretty much anything BKV was writing for Vertigo or Wildstorm, I couldn’t keep in hand. I was always loaning them out, and copies of each were lost in my friend’s hometowns all over the country.

That’s the road that would culminate in the trifecta of the New 52, the first Marvel Now, and the Image Boom in the early-mid 2010s. A diversification of content, and a flood of new creators and new ideas. Another generation stepped up to the plate and made some really fucking good comics.

All of this is naval-gazing more than anything. Mostly I’m just trying to get my experience down in text so I can take a kind of aerial view.

I miss it.

I think every comic fan has the era that made them fall in love with comics. New people find the industry every day. But being there, in that moment of creative renaissance, right as the back-catalog of the industry became widely available in bookstores for the first time? Comics felt like this secret bastion of the biggest and wildest ideas in storytelling, and it felt like it had been happening forever, and WOULD happen forever. I miss staying up late at night, breathlessly paging through volume 3 of a ten volume series, knowing another ten volume series was right behind it. And another. And another.

That was the moment that made me want to write comic books. If I hadn’t found comics right at that time, I don’t know that I ever would have. If I had been five years older or five years younger, I would have needed a more aggressive advocate to get me invested, and there just wasn’t one in my life. I became the aggressive advocate, because of how good and exciting all of those books were right when I was at my loneliest and most insecure. I needed worlds to escape into, and Comics provided.

What’s exciting to me is that the kids who experienced that moment at the same time as me. The true Millennials, the Kids who literally came of age after 2000, and were teenagers in the 2000s, are starting to show up in a big way in the industry.

Our stories feel like the children of the stories that made me love comic books. Not derivative, but inspired and shaped by them in some key way. The early to mid 00s deserves a lot more attention and critical thought, not as much by the people who lived and worked through them as creators, but by the kids who are in comics today BECAUSE of them. I think the storytelling choices of that time underlies a LOT of what we’re going to see in the 2020s.

I’m not even touching on Manga, Webcomics, or literary Graphic Novels, even though they are equally formative forces in shaping our baby creator minds. I could write a whole thing like this about each of them. And I might! Beware!

I’m going to keep thinking on this, and probably writing too much about it in these newsletters. I’m not here to write anything prescriptive, or try and claim other people’s experiences, but I want to keep talking about the sorts of comic books I read and loved when I was at the exact age as our real target audience.

I would love to hear about other creators’ thoughts on that era, and how it shaped them. I just want there to be more conversations. It feels like comics history too often ends after the early 90s boom and the bust that followed. I think that’s because the creators who experienced the 90s like I described the 00s, came of age in comics in the 10s. So now, it’s our turn to define the kind of game we’re setting out to play. Let’s be clear about our influences, and how they shaped us. I think that understanding will focus the ideas that we can pull forward and find our own success.

In the meantime, I hope my cohort and I can manage to create works just as daring, inventive and invigorating as those stories were, then. And I hope there are young teens out there reading the dang things, so we have the great comics of tomorrow.

THINGS I LIKED IN 2019

I’m not going to do a whole big list, because a lot of things I loved feel pretty universally loved (You don’t need another top ten list raving about Parasite. Obviously, Parasite is amazing. Obviously HoxPox is amazing). But let me say the following.

  • CRIMINAL by Brubaker/Phillips and GIDEON FALLS by Lemire/Sorrentino make me feel like a rank amateur every time I read them. They are just very, very good. I keep rereading issues, because it feels like I’m watching a complicated magic trick pulled off, over and over again in front of my eyes.

  • DCEASED is the sort of high concept, easy sell sort of comic that there should be a lot more of in the superhero genre, but there isn’t. Taylor/Hairsine made it look easy, but it isn’t. Blockbuster superheroes at their finest (and scariest).

  • VAULT COMICS continues to put out extremely good books, and you should check them all out and see which ones speak to you. These are the books that keep spinning me into thinking about the coming Millennial comic age of the 2020s. I’m especially interested to see what they do in the YA space now that they have my former JLD editor, the amazing Rebecca Taylor at the helm of the new division!

  • It feels like a new golden age for HORROR COMICS. With all of the Hill House books (especially The Low, Low Woods by Carmen Maria Machado and DaNi), Hellblazer, The Plot, Black Stars Above, These Savage Shores, and *cough* Something is Killing the Children. I think some of the most innovative comic work is happening in horror right now. At The Mountains Of Madness by Gou Tanabe is the comic I expected the least from and got the most from all year. Probably the best iteration of the classic Lovecraft that exists. I am eager to see more of his work translated. It's exciting. There are so many good, scary comics to read.

  • I feel like CHERNOBYL is being forgotten a bit at the end of the year, but it’s easily the best thing I saw on television in 2019 (which, all things considered, was a very good television year). I don’t think anything hit me harder all year. I’m very grateful

  • ROOT OF EVIL is not for the feint of heart, but is the true crime podcast I loved the most this year. It needled under my skin and stayed there, wriggling. Truly harrowing work, from a much more personal point of view than you usually get to see in the True Crime format. If I were to list all the content warnings for this one it would go on for ages, so if there are lines you don’t want crossed in your non-fiction, read up before you dig in.

  • I read THE FISHERMAN based on Steve Foxe’s recommendation around Halloween this year and loved it. Especially because my family has a cabin up in the Catskills just around the corner from where the whole twisted story goes down. One of the best cosmic horror things I’ve read that doesn’t read at all like just Lovecraft remixed. Just good, good scary stuff.

  • MONEYLAND by Oliver Burrough is the non-fiction book that got under my skin the most this year. I listened to a lot of non-fiction that didn’t do much for me in 2019, but I’m glad I made it through this one. But in terms of recommendations, I still think everyone in the Millennial generation (and older, frankly) should read Malcolm Harris’ Kids These Days, Jane Mayer’s Dark Money, and Kurt Andersen’s Fantasyland. I think those three books do more to lay out why the country is the way it is right now than any others I’ve read.

  • MESSY SOPHOMORE FILMS. I really, really enjoyed US and MIDSOMMAR. THE LIGHTHOUSE left me a little cold, but I loved the visuals and the performances. I still need to see DOCTOR SLEEP, but have heard very good things. It feels like a whole generation of indy horror directors put out really good, weird and interesting work this year. It didn’t all work for me, and some of it felt like it could be cooked in the oven a bit longer, but it’s refreshing to see so many directors trying new and interesting things in the medium. I like the uncooked, doughy stuff. It’s thrilling as a creator to dig into a work that’s experimenting and seeing what excesses and flourishes they can get away with. That’s where you get a sense of what other stuff they are going to make, and in all cases, it excites me.

  • BAKING BREAD is good. It calms me down, makes the apartment smell delicious, and feels like a fun, weird science project. I like having a hobby. Especially a hobby that I’m still not very good at, and have a lot to learn about. Comics used to be my hobby, but they haven’t been in a long, long time. It’s nice having something to talk about at parties. This year I want to try a bunch of new types of bread.

HOUSEKEEPING

I did a big round of “Ask Me Anything” on Twitter over the weekend, and my fan mail bag is a little light. Now that we’re almost through the holidays, if you have any questions about my Batman run, particularly ones that might be longer than a tweet, hit me up at TinyOnionStudios@gmail.com with NEWSLETTER in the header.

The biggest benefit of the holidays are the DC offices are closed, and I can make big headway on my creator owned projects. So let’s do a quick rundown.

PROJECT WINGBOY is going to be announced in a few weeks. The artist has been turning in stunning pages over the holidays, and I am in love with this book and all its characters. I first came up with this book when I was in high school, living through all the stuff I was talking about above. It’s an OGN, and the tonal midpoint between Backstagers and The Woods.

PROJECT DALLAS’ first script is going through final revisions and the artist will be wrapped with his current commitments in the coming weeks. The artist and I have been talking about this book since September 2018, and it’s been in my head since summer 2017. I have a logo and a cover mockup staring at me from my desktop, and it looks really fucking cool if I have to say so myself.

PROJECT LAKEHOUSE is next on the docket to spin into gear, and I have a document about its main characters growing steadily on my desktop. That’ll probably happen roughly in tandem with PROJECT LONGTOOTH which I just finished the proposal for to run up the ladder. I need to send some emails about PROJECT CHAOS, which isn’t going to be a thing until 2021 at the earliest, but you gotta keep the balls moving.

I also had some NEW ideas about things, but they need to chill for a bit while I write a lot more Batman comics and the creator owned I ALREADY have on my plate.

Anyways. Enjoy the rest of the year. See you in 2020!

James Tynion IV
Brooklyn, NY
12.30.19