7: Bright Cities, Dark Knights

It was late 2011. 

I don’t remember exactly how late, but I’d guess it was late November, early December. I was working at a social media advertising startup in SoHo, writing tweets and facebook quiz games. It wasn’t quite my birthday yet. I was twenty-three years old.

My business card called me a “Creative Writer” which I enjoyed. We’d been in college through the Great Recession, and my peers Sarah Lawrence undergraduate writing program used to joke that we were going to be very prepared for the job market because it’s not like there were EVER jobs in “Creative Writing” writ large. There was no job out there with that title. But it said so on my business card. It had this super thick paper stock with a neon orange rim, and it was the most grown-up I had ever felt in my life.

But almost every night I would go home from that job and get on the phone with one of my former writing professors. Scott Snyder had just launched Batman at the start of the New 52, building from his powerhouse run on Detective Comics. The book, a few months in, was picking up steam. Fans adored The Court of Owls. I’d been something of a sounding board since I had taken his class three years prior, in the first semester of my Junior Year. We’d talk through the next scene he needed to write in the next issue, or I’d read the latest draft of this comic or that comic. I was moonlighting as a defacto writing assistant for the biggest book in comics and I fucking loved it.

Scott knew I did not want to be writing tweets for make-up brands and premium cable channels. I liked the stability of a job with a salary that could pay my rent in NYC, but advertising had never been my endgame. I’d been showing him pitches for creative owned titles I was hoping to pitch to Vertigo, since I still knew editors there from when I had been an intern. (One of those was an early pitch for what would become THE WOODS). I was getting better at pitching, and I had started running little spec scripts for comics that would never happen by him to get his input. And Scott had been gracious, talking me up to the Batman Group Editor at the time, Mike Marts. It got to the point where Mike asked if he could read something I’d written. So, I put a script together, just for him.

It was called BATMAN: BRIGHT CITY. If you’re interested, you can download it here. It’s never been released in any way… But it’s also never GOING to be released as an actual comic book. So hey! Here it is. Enjoy.

It was a one-shot set in the future of Gotham, starring Commissioner Dick Grayson, and a Cyborg Tim Drake. It was more sentimental than anything. And sad. I just reread it tonight, and I’m still very proud of it.

It’s too dense, a bit too obvious, and I had no idea how much dialogue you could fit in a single panel (some might say I STILL have no idea how to do that). The first draft was 24 pages, and if I had to re-edit it today, I would put those four extra pages back in there to let it breathe. I’d also put in a bit more action. Hell, give me 38 pages to do it RIGHT. But as an artifact, it’s fascinating. I put a lot of sweat and tears into this script, going through about nine drafts with Scott before sending it in to the Bat-Offices. I wanted to give a kind of mission statement that showed I knew the world and the dynamics and the characters, but that I could also take those pieces and do new, strange stories with them. 

If you decide to read it, you can see bits and pieces of a lot that I would come back to the following 8 years, in the hundreds of Batman comics with my name on them… The role of Tim Drake is particularly interesting, because it totally ties into what I did in my final Detective Comics arcs, which is bizarre, because I have not read this script in years. 

It’s wild how much of my Gotham is in that weird, sad one shot… 

But anyways… About a month after I send this in, some time before my birthday, I got a text from Scott during the day. This happened sometimes. I couldn’t just go talk Batman or DC for an hour or two in the middle of a work day, but I could sneak in a ten minute conversation every now and then and help talk through a stubborn action sequence or line of dialogue. I was a smoker at the time, which helped keep me out of trouble. So, I walked out onto the balcony of the Euro RSCG building on Hudson and King and took the call.

Batman, at that point, was already an outsized success. And it was growing momentum, even as the rest of the New 52 was starting to settle. So DC had decided that there should be eight extra pages in every issue of Batman (and a number of other high profile books). They had asked Scott to write the Backups, but at that time he was working on Batman, Swamp Thing, American Vampire, and an American Vampire spin-off miniseries… So he asked if he could bring me in to co-write with him. 

And since Mike had read my Bright City one-shot, he said yes.

I’ll be honest, I thought I was going to die when Scott told me. Like straight up, I could not process what I had just been told. I both wanted to cry and wanted to start working immediately. I had wanted to be a comic book writer since I was thirteen years old, and it was finally going to happen. It wasn’t the door into the business I was looking for, but it’s the door I found. And somewhere in the back of my mind a very bizarre fact hit me.

My first published comic book was going to be Batman.

It scared the crap out of me. I still had a day job. It was easy being the walking DC Encyclopedia Scott could call when he needed to talk through some odds and ends, and suggest what I would do with this character or that. Hell, it was even easy on some level to write what essentially a standalone future elseworlds one-shot just to give a flavor of what I wanted to do.

It was another thing to put my nose to the grindstone and write something that people were going to read… And if they didn’t like it, my first published book was going to be Batman, but it might have been my last, too. I didn’t have anything creator owned to rest my laurels on. Nothing that showed why I deserved to have this shot. The pressure was on.

I’m still really proud of that first run of backups. The Fall of the House of Wayne. I have the splash page that ended Issue #9 on the wall behind me as I type. That gig got me the Batman Annual, and Talon, and started my entire career.

But there was nothing scarier than that weight. The trial of fire that was taking part in the flagship title of the company. This is BATMAN. This is the book that pretty much needs to, by law, be the coolest, biggest comic book you can get your hands on. I remembered when that weight had hit Scott, when he realized he wasn’t going to be writing Dick Grayson Batman anymore, and that he’d be writing the second ever Batman #1 in the history of the company.

He knew the responsibility of that book, You could do an arthouse thriller like Black Mirror in the pages of Detective, but Batman needed bombast, and action. You needed to bring all of the smarts to the book, but you also needed muscle. How do you keep something smart and layered while you’re showing off incredible gadgets and action month in and out? With great difficulty and deliberation. The math was radically different on Batman, and it needed to be respected to deliver something exceptional. 

We would spend hours trying to crack it, like weird story mathematicians, trying to find the perfect formula of flash and substance. I’ve been thinking back to all those conversations a LOT lately. I’ve also, you know, cheated, and talked a lot to Scott about this directly.

Needless to say, I’ve been feeling the immense weight of the book, myself. 

It’s a book that’s going to be read by nature of what it is, and the onus rests on the creator to rise up and meet the responsibility of the job. To tell a new and daring story in the face of nearly a century of the greatest pop fiction icon that has ever existed on the printed page. 

I know how to write a Batman comic. Eight years of doing it, I fucking better. I know how to put the pieces in the right order to show you a good time. But in a world where you have all of Scott’s trades, all of Grant’s trades, all of Tom’s trades, and a whole lot more great Batman stories… The job is more than giving you something you like pretty good. I want to deliver something that demands a spot on the shelf with your favorite Batman comics.

Batman #86, if it does the job for you I hope it does, will start to show you why I think it deserves that spot. And then will continue showing you two times a month for as long as I get to write this book. So, let’s see if we can add a few new ideas to the conversation of Batman, and add a few toys to the toy chest and see if they stick.

I’m proud of this book. I’m honored I have been able to spend this first long era of my career in Gotham City. I still can’t believe how fucking lucky I have been. 

Scott used to say this amazing thing at Batman panels during his run, and he’s said it since, but now I think it’s my turn to say it… 

You all are Gotham. You are the reason I get to write this book. It is your trust and support that lets me tell the stories I’m setting out to tell. 

So, thank you. And I’ll see you under the red skies and police blimps on Wednesday.

THIS WEEK IN STORES

BATMAN #86
Pencils by Tony S. Daniel
Inks by Danny Miki
Colors by Tomeu Morey
Letters by Clayton Cowles
Variant Cover by Francesco Mattina 
Coda by Guillem March & Tomeu Morey

So, you might have picked up on this. Batman #86 comes out on Wednesday. I’ve been talking a lot about it over the last month. I’ve gone on and on about action horror, and gadgets, and bad guys. Now you get to see them for yourself. I’m thrilled I got to start my run with such phenomenal collaborators. 

I’ve loved Tony’s work for years, and I think this issue features some of the best of it I’ve seen. He perfectly captured the feel of Gotham as I saw it, and set the stage for THEIR DARK DESIGNS. Paired with the phenomenal Danny Miki and Tomeu Morey, this is a gorgeous book.

Also: You knew there was a coda in #85, but hey! There’s a coda in #86, too! I’m going to be talking up Guillem March a lot in the next few newsletters as we approach his first issues on the series, but holy moly, does he do creepy horror well.

MAILBAG
I got some great questions over the weekend on twitter, and more in my Newsletter Inbox over the holidays. Reminder, if you want to get a letter answered in the newsletter, email TinyOnionStudios@gmail.com with Newsletter in the headers. There were plenty of questions I can’t answers, and plenty more that I won’t answer, but I liked these two in particular.

Hello James,

I'm interested in whether you have any thoughts about Hush as a character? I'm kind of fascinated by him, he's got a great design and some strong story hooks, but the original story is so damn convoluted regarding what his deal is supposed to be that I feel like no one has really nailed down a definitive blueprint for the character. Yet that story seems to be a perennial TPB seller for DC, and he's probably one of the better established new Bat-characters post the new millennium. I know he was in Batman Eternal, but I'm not sure how involved you were with those particular issues of that series. 

Best regards (and thanks for a lot of enjoyment and great stories!), Jakob

Hey, Thanks for the question! Honestly, I love Hush as a character. I’ve loved him since I first read the original Hush series (and I had that Jim Lee Batman on a Gargoyle cover as a big poster framed in my Middle School bedroom). 

You’re right that the focus of a mystery is never fully defined in their first appearance. I think there’s a whole series of stories that followed the original that played out in Paul Dini’s Detective Comics and Streets of Gotham. 

Heart of Hush and House of Hush are some unsung classics. They got overshadowed a bit by what Grant Morrison was doing on the core Batbooks at the time, but if you love Hush and you haven’t hunted those stories down, I highly highly recommend them. 

Thanks for the question!

Hello Mr. Tynion IV,

My name is Nathaniel and I live in Ames, Iowa!

Anyway, love your comics, big fan and all, but my question is: what is the most brilliant thing you’ve seen a horror comic accomplish in the last decade? Sorry to lay that on you, it’s a big one to ponder and you probably have work to finish. More important work that is. Well, you’re not getting paid for the blog directly, so is this really work for you? Does any of what you do truly classify as work? After all, you love it right? Plus, do you even read these emails first, maybe someone reviews them beforehand? All I’m trying to say is, keep writing comics.

Oh boy, That is TOUGH.

I mean, on one hand there is an easy answer. THE WALKING DEAD transformed a black and white horror comic into the most successful comic book of the modern age, turning Robert Kirkman into an outright Mogul. When we go to Pennsylvania to visit Sam’s family, and her mom and teenage brother know characters from a black and white indy horror comic? That’s fucking impressive. That’s the biggest accomplishment any horror comic has had in the last 25 years.

But in terms of craft, it’s tough. I think horror comics have been in a lull for a while, and are just coming back to life at the end of the decade. There were great horror comics in the interim. Wytches and Revival were some of my favorites… But now we have the incredible artistic symbiosis between Jeff Lemire and Andrea Sorrentino in Gideon Falls. We have the entire Hill House line of books. We have The Plot and These Savage Shores, and so much more… 

And now all of Junji Ito’s Manga is in print and in english, and we’ve got the Gou Tanabe Lovecraft adaptations? 2019 was the best horror year in comics in living memory. 

And yes. Comics are work. I did four all-nighters in December to get you monsters some neat comic books to read and I paid the price for it! There are days comic books make me want to set my beard on fire and run off into the woods and be a hermit.

But I can’t imagine doing anything else!

HOUSEKEEPING

I am very excited about a lot of things right now. I have a bunch of projects that are evolving beyond vague notions and turning into things that will probably become actual comic books you can read in the next couple of years!

PROJECT CHAOS took a big step forward over the break. That book is going to be to 2020, what PROJECTS WINGBOY, DALLAS, and LAKEHOUSE were to 2018-2019. Which is to say that I’m going to be developing it on the backburner, with an eye to releasing it the following year.  There’s a secondary project that I might explore releasing in a different media that I’ll call PROJECT FLAGON that’s in a similar boat.

DALLAS is about to gear up into production in a big way. I had a big brainstorming moment about LAKEHOUSE over the weekend that I think will shape how I write that book later this spring when I start scripting. PROJECT WINGBOY is about to be announced, and about half the art is done. 

Like I’ve said before, some of these are deep backburner projects that won’t see the light of day for years… But some of them are closer than you think. And arc two of SOMETHING IS KILLING THE CHILDREN is shaping up to be something very, very special. I am excited to explore more of this strange world I’m building. There’s going to be a cool outlet for you to find out more about that book soon. 

Anyways. Buy a few dozen copies of Batman 86 this week, so I can spend the next few years writing all the big ideas that have been bubbling up in the back of my brain. 

And buy a few dozen of those, too! 

James Tynion IV
Brooklyn, NY
1.6.20