Geoff Johns and Gary Frank on “Batman: Earth One Volume Two”

A Passion for Characters

May 18, 2015 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


Nearly three years ago, prolific writer and DC Comics Chief Creative Officer, Geoff Johns, and his frequent collaborator, artist Gary Frank, made a splash with their fantastic reimagining of Batman, Batman: Earth One. The first volume of the on-going graphic novel series witnessed a young, relatively inexperienced Batman whose driving mission was to findand punishhis parents' killers. Mining and re-conceiving the Batman mythology, Johns and Frank breathed fresh life into the iconic character, delivering versions of the Dark Knight, his foes, and especially Alfred, unlike they appear in any other Batman book.

Now, at long last, DC Comics has released Johns' and Frank's second entry in the series, Batman: Earth One Volume Two. Under the Radar sat down with the creative duo to geek out about Earth One, the most popular superhero in history, and the flourishing comic book industry.

Batman: Earth One Volume Two is in stores now.

Zach Hollwedel (Under the Radar): Thank you both for taking the time to speak with me today. I'm a huge and long time Bat-fan, so this is a real treat. Batman: Earth One Volume Two is of course a reimagining of Batman, and one of the most interesting aspects of it, to me, has been the new take on some of Gotham's key rogues. In Volume Two, and without spoiling anything for our readers, The Riddler and Killer Croc in particular are quite different from any version we've seen of them to date. I'm curious, how did you first, settle on using the characters that you did and, second, on the specific incarnations of them, given all there is to mine in the Bat Universe?

Geoff Johns: Gary and I talk all the time about the story. With The Riddler in particular, what we wanted to explore in this book was Batman becoming a detective and Batman really finding his identity and making it all about identity and answering questions. The Riddler just fit perfectly into that. And we set that up in the first book, because we knew the first book was all about committing to a different mission for Batman. In the original volume, he just wants to find and take down the person that killed his parents, and ultimately, it opens up to a whole new thing when he understands and comes to the conclusion that he might never find that person. And his mission changes to combat all crime in Gotham. We set The Riddler up for that. This volume was always supposed to be the evolution of that, and the first step is becoming a detective and really deciding who Batman is. Maybe questioning who Bruce Wayne is. There's a lot of that explored with all of our characters; they're at a crossroads. The Riddler felt like the best possible villain to challenge all that.

In re-conceiving of Batman as you did, what were some of the most important things you felt you had to maintain to be true to Batman, even a story that is outside of cannon? And was there anything that you came up with that perhaps you thought was too out there or false for the character that would be awesome, but just not doable?

Geoff: I don't know if we came up with any...for us, our compass is, it's all subjective. But there are some things in the Batman mythology and in Bruce Wayne that we wanted to stay consistent with, because it's true to the characters. But also, if you've read the book, there are some pretty big changes. Even in the first volume, Alfred is a prime example of a very different interpretation of the character. I think, for us, it still feels like it's still Batman, so it's just a matter of making choices that are just "when is something too far?" Batman's never going to have superpowers. That's not Batman. And there's elements of all these characters that I think remain true to who they are in any mediumcomics or filmsbut at the same time, if we're not doing something different or exploring them in a different way.... And a lot of that is emotionally. If you look at...there are some changesGary did a great redesign on The Riddler and Croc looks great. There are some subtleties that Gary, who is one of the most brilliant artists obviously in the medium, he does an emotional storytelling that's unmatched by anyone. And part of that's comes through in decisions that he makesand I'll let you talk about that, Garylike let's see the eyes. Let's not cover them up with white. Lets actually let people see his eyes, because we get more expression out of him [Batman] and it becomes a little more human and relatable and grounded for us. Rather than this all powerful, mythic figure, we really focus on the human being. But a lot of those changes individually are subtle enough, where if you look at the characters, they still resemble the characters. Most of the hardcore changes are underneath the skin. They're in their mind and hearts; we really re-analyzed these guys on an emotional level and tried to explore them in ways that perhaps they've never been explored before. And that's how they're portrayed and how they interact with the characters and what their motivations are, who they are as people in Gotham that I think makes it different. It's a lot superficial and I think more emotional stuff.

Gary Frank: And I think, structurally, these things don't really come about from short-term planning, how much we can change. It's not like we say, "Okay, well we need this, this, and this, and that. What are we going to do with it? What changes are we going to make? What's it like when change is beginning to take?" All of these things come from having an idea before we go in, just kind of talking about what the character is like, what the story needs to do. And what the character needs to be, what they need to look like, how they need to react and behave. Where it kind of serves the purpose of the story we're trying to tell. So as long as you kind of have an idea of that, you can get into the changes you make, which grow organically from that. There's not too much imposed. We'll chat, and then something will occur to one of us, and it will get inserted into the conversation. If it's a good idea, then it's done.

It strikes me as perhaps a daunting challenge to breath fresh life into such a recognizable and well-explored character, both story-wise and visually. Even those subtle changes you're talking about succeeded in shining new light on Batman and Gotham and all the people operating within it.

Geoff: This is all kind ofand all of these things arethe result of us having an idea of what the story needs to be. It's an organic process. It has to be like that. It works best when you're working through your idea. You know, you can't really go into thisI can't imagine a worse way for approaching a retake of a characterthan saying, "How can we improve Batman? What needs to be fixed? What do we need to change to make it work?" I have to say, if you don't like Batman that much, then find another character, do another character. What got me, was the idea that, having worked together in the past, we know what we like to do, what we enjoy doing a lot, and it's character stuff. It's character driven. It's making the reader have more empathy toward the characters. So if you kind of take that as your starting point, you take Batman and you treat him that way and you say, "We're going to make him as human as we can. We're going to make him a man and explore how he becomes Batman." If you start from that point of view, then all of the changes we made, all of the tweaks, they come to serve our ends. The changes that we need to make are to serve our characters.

As a character with such a long history, Batman's evolution has been pretty fascinating over the course of his existence, encompassing a caped detective, which you highlight in Earth One, and a campy figure in the '60s, and a deeply dark and brooding figure. Has his evolution stopped? Where do you both see the character going in the future?

Geoff: I will say that our goal isn't necessary to have this universe line up with and be exactly the same as all the other Batman books that are publishedBatman, Detective, and everything else. We have a very different...we're working on Volume Three already, and we have a very definitive beginning, middle, and end to this graphic novel series. There's a lot of characters that will not end upwe don't really want to give away where we're goingbut we're not necessarily doing everybody to become their counterpart in the mainstream Batman universe. It's just really our own take on it. So, I wouldn't want to spoil completely where we're going, but as you can even see in Volume Two, we're not taking every character you know into the direction that they usually go in.

And there are some great surprises in there.

Geoff: We really feel that it was important to deliver on the promise of a new take on Batman when we started this. Gary and I both take that very seriously, because there are so many wonderful Batman stories. And it's not broken. We're not trying to fix anything; we're just trying to look at it in a slightly different way. And because of that, we can do that on an emotional level and a character level. We can spend more time with these characters and really dig deeper into them than you can in a 20-page monthly book. We're trying to ground it in different ways and make it surprising, but also not surprising in that we don't want to change things just to change this. Everything's got a very emotional reason, and it's all building on what Bruce is going through and what Bruce's journey is. Everything connects back to that, and every character connects back to that. So it's a different way to look at this huge, mythic universe. We're very, very fortunate to be able to take our time and get the freedom to do it in a very different way.

Gary: I'm sure there were big ideas that when we talked about it...and it may well be an idea that could be made to work.... But Geoff won't break the idea of what serves our purpose.... So, there are things, which we said, that might be a funny, wacky idea and it may be great...for a page or two, but it would be damaging as a whole, to the kind of ideas that we have...

Geoff: Yeah, there's been a few ideas that just felt they were a little too much change for change's sake, or they're shocking, but they're not emotionally resonant with Bruce. If that's the case, we just don't do them.

Gary: Or they create a complication with something else in the book, something more important, something, which would require a payoff at a later date.... It can damage what you're trying to do.

I'd like to go a bit broader right now and ask, as two people working very much at the heart of the industry, do you think we're entering a new age in comics? What direction do you think the medium might take, given how ubiquitous comic books are in pop culture these days? By that, I mean specifically its prevalence in primetime TV, which you are deeply involved in, Geoff, as well as in cinema.

Geoff: I don't know. You know, it's funny. Obviously, you always have, there are so many conversations to have about comic books, from the TV and film stuff we're doing to games and everything else, to the readership. At the end of the day, it's still the graphic storytelling form. In this case, with a book like Batman: Earth One, a book series like this, it's very different to work in when it comes to craft, because you're writing a story that's going to be read hopefully all in one sitting, and a book that's designed to have a beginning, middle, and end. It's self-contained, and you don't have to worry about 50 other monthly books that are doing all sorts of things. You can really focus in on a world and a character and craft a very complex and nuanced story that doesn't have to worry about hitting all the same beats for a monthly book. We have stretches in Batman: Earth One where it's 20 pages of character work and story and there's no fighting or action. It's hard to get away with that in a monthly comic book. You can do it once in a while, but this format really allows us to do a whole, complete story that I think a lot of casual readers enjoy. A lot of the readers that read Batman: Earth One Volume One I don't think they regularly read comic books. A lot of them do, as well. But this kind of format, and I use "future" in quotes, the "future" of comics, it's the first time I've ever done itI think it's the first time you've ever done it, Garywhere we're creating a graphic novel series that's really self-contained, but it's based on the most famous and popular superhero in the world. So for the audience member, we can hand this to anybody, and they can pick it up and read it and not have to worry about anything else. For us, that's really rewarding, because it is tough sometimes to get somebody hooked on a monthly book and come back every month and then worry about continuity and all this stuff in other books. The luxury here is that we really can have a self-contained series that is judged on its own merits, rather than a whole universe.

Gary: Geoff knows far more about the state of the comics industry than I do. I've kept myself...I'm quite isolated. I just need to concentrate on what I'm doing. I think Geoff can give it an enormous amount of thought...

Geoff: Yeah, and I would say that also when you're working on a book like this, you're not thinking about that as much, you know? You're really thinking about a great story and a character and an arc. It's not something Gary and I ever talk about when we're talking about this book, like, "Hey, do we think this is the future of comics?" All we think is, "Is this a great story?"

It was interesting that you touched on readership, too. I've been curious, from the point of view of a consumer, if you feel that this expansion into TV and movies the way we've seen recently, is it drawing new readers to comics? And if so, do they have expectations, like a fight on every page, that longer-time readers might not bring to the medium?

Geoff: All I know is that, comics, movies, games, toyswhatever it isas long as people are falling in love with the characters that I love or Gary loves or anybody loves, as long as we're sharing the love for the character, quite honestly I don't care what medium people are enjoying them in. Comics are my first and great passion, and I always want people to come back to it. But I think the global idea that people just love the characters and are passionate is just really, really exciting. And that points them back to the original source material.

Love of character is a great segue. Gary and Geoff, who in the Bat Universe is each of your favorite character, and why? Or, if you'd prefer, are there any retired characters you'd love to bring back at some point?

Gary: Ah, that's a good one. I guess that depends on which storyline. I really like our version of Alfred. I'm not quite so clean on the Alfred that's appeared in a lot of other incarnations over the years, but yeah... I don't know. I don't know. Geoff?

Geoff: Gosh, yeah, that's a hard one. I think I'll speak to our Earth One series. Obviously, Bruce is a wonderful character and he is really fun to work with, because there are some moments in this book that are very untraditional Batman-like. When we hit those, I just have a great time with the character, because he feels more real. He's a little crazy. I think he actually is, we brought some more craziness to him, in the best possible way. But he's very driven and maybe a little cut off, but he's incredibly emotionally self-aware. I really like our Bruce Wayne. I just think he's a compelling character. Alfred, of course, is always fun to write. I love when Gary draws.... I think, Alfred is probably for us, the one who is just absolutely so different. It's so exciting to work on something like that, where we really felt confident in our take on Alfred. We really felt like this was something special and newan Alfred that was a little more physical and a little bit more empowered. It just felt exciting for us to explore that. And then other characters, I mean I like our whole cast a lot. Everybody loves the new character of Jessica Dent. I like her. I think that's cool. She's a fun character to work with. But my favorite character that maybe we haven't used yetthere's one obscure villain, or kind of obscure villain I really likethat we're going to use, so I wouldn't want to give that away. But obviously at some point, we've got to get to the Joker, and we will.

Jessica Dent is fascinating, and there are so many villains that maybe pop up once in a while throughout Batman's history that are just wonderful.

Geoff: For me, one of the great villains for Batman that I've always liked was Croc, Killer Croc. He's someone that we brought into this book, and I'm anxious to see what people think of our take on him.

Gary: That's the interesting thing about Croc. And you talk about Two-Face and you talk about Joker, and there are characters, which reflect something about Bruce, something about Batman. That's when I think a nemesis or a rogue or a villain becomes more interestingwhen there's some connection with the hero. They reflect something about the hero. They tell the hero something about himself. All three of those let you do that.

I won't try to push you for any more hints on Volume Three, but I'm definitely happy to hear that there is one in the works.

www.twitter.com/geoffjohns

www.twitter.com/1moregaryfrank

www.dccomics.com/graphic-novels/batman-earth-one-vol-2



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