It’s the 75th anniversary of Batman, and that inspires a lot of nostalgia for the Caped Crusader. So what better way to embellish that inspiration than with some of DC’s highest-profile creators? Before their panel at San Diego Comic-Con, we had a chance to participate in a press conference that brought together DC Co-Publishers Dan DiDio and Jim Lee, Batman writer Scott Snyder, Batman: Earth One writer Geoff Johns, and the legendary Frank Miller, whose seminal work The Dark Knight Returns, about an grizzled old Batman who has to come out of retirement, has massively influenced nearly every take on Batman since its debut in 1986.
Here’s the chat we had with these captains of the industry, including their picks for the most underrated Batman creators in those 75 years, and why they think he endures.
Which one of you guys writes the best Batman?
Frank Miller: Actually, the best Batman is the one I grew up with, which was written by Denny O’Neil and drawn by Neal Adams. Without it, I don’t know if I could have done Dark Knight, because they opened my eyes to what possibilities the character had.
Geoff Johns: Frank Miller. Between Batman Year One and – the past and the future, he’s kind of defined it in a way that no one has before then, and the influence is still felt. I don’t think you can say that about all characters, especially Batman.
Scott Snyder: I still have my original issues of The Dark Knight Returns at my parents’ house. Growing up in New York, that was the thing that was so incredibly affecting about it. Suddenly, Batman existed in the city around us, where you saw him facing problems in an actual landscape that looked like the city we were living in, where you couldn’t necessarily go to Central Park, and there was crime and graffiti. To see Batman saving people and to be an inspiration in the city that was immediately your own was just a tremendous influence on me. It made me want to write, honestly, to see that you could make a superhero so relevant and personal and immediate. That was definitely the transformative moment for me.
Miller: Well, thanks. He also really beat the crap out of a lot of people. (laughs)
Snyder: And his car was cool.
Johns: And he has that penny.
Jim Lee, Scott Snyder, Geoff Johns, Dan DiDio and Frank Miller
Who would you say was the most underrated creator in the 75 years of Batman?
Dan DiDio: For me, personally, I was a huge Jim Aparo fan. We talk about Neal Adams, and he was so incredibly strong, and I’m on the same fence with Frank – Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams is definitive to me, but my favorite artist and the one who defines Batman to me is Jim Aparo. The amount of work he did, the body of work, and just the fluidity and energy and life he brought to that character – he’s the one who really made me love the character.
Miller: I’d bring two names to bear. One is Bill Finger, who was arguably co-creator of Batman, and the other was Jerry Robinson, who got very, very little credit for an astonishing amount of work, and who established a mood and a look for Batman.
Jim Lee: I’ll throw out Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers. They did this awesome Batman and Joker storyline which I thought really redefined Batman for me. It was very superheroic but it had a lot of detective elements to it. It was just dazzling.
Snyder: For me, I think the work on The Animated Series and The New Adventures was really seminal.
Miller: Yeah, Bruce Timm.
Snyder: Yeah, Bruce Timm and Alan Burnett…
Lee: Underrated, right? They’re not underrated!
Johns: That’s pretty rated! (laughs)
Snyder: The reason I think it’s underrated is because I feel like a lot of the origins of the villains and a lot of the things that we assume in the modern interpretations come from the comics. A lot of them actually filtered in from that animated stuff – Nora from Mr. Freeze and a lot of that stuff. They’re totally ‘rated,’ you’re right, but in terms of their influence on comics – it was something huge.
Johns: Harley Quinn.
Miller: What Bruce Timm did – and I attribute it almost entirely to him – was he took the best Batman from every period, from Dick Sprang through Neal Adams through my stuff through everybody’s stuff, and managed to meld it into this composite Batman that was really a reminder for anybody who touches the character that Batman is essentially a force for justice, and also a big guy with a big jaw.
Can you talk about the legacy of the character and why you believe we’re still celebrating it, why there is a 75th anniversary? I mean, there are a million theories, people have written college thesis papers, but could you give your own take on it?
Lee: Sure. Everyone’s going to have a different reason, but one of the reasons is the art form of comics. It’s all about letting the creators and talent come in and do their definitive versions of these characters. We’re not trying to say ‘hey, this is Batman, this is the style guide, this is the length of his ears and the length of his cape, draw it just like this and you can only do these kinds of stories.’ We fortunately work in a form, a creative field where people are encouraged to do new things and add to the mythology, like the Court of Owls, new costumes, new Batmobiles. I think that’s how you keep it fresh, modern and contemporary, and that’s how everyone that comes into Batman, every generation of fans, they go ‘that’s my Batman.’ It’s slightly different than the one before, but at its core and essence, it’s still obviously the character that we all know and love.
Miller: Well spoken. The point I add is that Batman, somewhere along the line, like Zorro, became a folk hero, and so each generation wants to celebrate that folk hero because we each grew up with it. The character – we know how old he is, but he’s fresh as can be. At his origins, the comics industry was trapped by enormous censorship, but as time has opened things up for artists, we’ve gotten to express ourselves a lot better. Now, the lid is off the kettle, and it’s a matter of the artists and the publishers working together to realize who is Batman and what is still Batman? You can go too rough with it.
Johns: I also think he’s the most elastic character in fiction. You don’t see any other character – not only in publishing but cartoons for kids and video games like Rocksteady’s Arkham series – there’s no other character in fiction that’s had more stories told about them, and that’s because Batman’s so human. Dan always says, and I think it’s a great point, and Gotham illustrates it – his parents could get killed today or 70 years ago and the origin story is still intact. He’s a timeless character, and so many people tap into that and bring their love of Batman to everything they’re doing. Film, TV, games, comic books. I just can’t even imagine another character that has had this many tales woven by this many creators in human history, even.
Miller: Superman’s a close second.
Johns: Close, but he hasn’t had as many movies or games or animation.
Snyder: I think it’s what you said, too, the humanity of the character. For me writing him, the thing that’s so inspiring all the time is that at core, if you take away the wealth and the gadgets and the fun stuff, he’s somebody who takes this traumatic event and turns it into fuel to become the pinnacle of human achievement. This person that swings through the sky and says ‘if I can take this tragedy and transform my body and myself into this almost impossible figure that can do anything, then you can overcome things that you’re facing in your life.’ As much as he says criminals are a cowardly and superstitious lot and he strikes terror into the hearts of evildoers in Gotham, he’s also a tremendous source of inspiration to anyone who’s facing challenges. For me, that’s what makes him enduring as well.
Miller: Also, if I may add, there’s a certain sexiness to a character who dresses up like a bad guy and throws people through windows. Batman brings an edge that most superheroes don’t. Most of them were sanitized during the late 40s and early 50s, and you don’t really think of that many Flash stories or Green Lantern stories that cut to your heart the way Batman does. When he had his dalliance with R’as Al Ghul’s daughter, that’s a moment to remember, because we don’t know where this is going. We didn’t even know this side of him.
Every writer, every artist brings their own personal take to the character and bring something new to it, so every time you put a new writer or artist on the book, it takes things in a different way. What do you feel you brought to Batman and made indelible about him?
Lee: Apparently, treads. Dan and I were talking about this, he said he hadn’t seen boots on Batman before. A lot of people bring that up for some reason. Look, you never know as you’re doing the work what you’ll be remembered for. Scenes that you think are pivotal and dramatic might not get the same recognition as stuff that you didn’t foresee being a big deal. I don’t know. Frank’s work is what got me into comics, so any time I take on a new character, I try to blend the things I loved about the work that came before me. Certainly, what Frank was doing with Batman and Neal Adams was probably the other twin tower of that. Both of those two are big influences, and just trying to take that and modernize it and do something and add something new to it. And kind of expand the Batcave a little bit and try to make some sense of where he keeps all his cars. I don’t know. Just trying to apply some logic to this whole crazy concept of ‘I’ve got a cave, I’m just going to fill it with computers and cars, and I’ll figure out a way to get that stuff out later.’
Miller: And meanwhile, I’ll have the Boy Wonders around, too.
Snyder: That’s hard. We added a few owls. It’s harder to talk about what the contribution is because we’re in the middle of it, but I can say what the compass is, I guess, in terms of what we hope we’re bringing to it. For Greg Capullo and me and the team on the book right now, it really is trying to live up to examples set by Frank and other writers on the book. They were always telling stories that were, at core, fun and modern and immediate, and did revolutionary things with the character in a colorful, bombastic, muscular way on the page, but ultimately, when you peel those layers back, they were tremendously personal stories. You see Frank’s interests across his books, the ones that are in Batman, and for me, that’s what it’s about – bringing the interests through Batman that you find so incredibly inspirational about that character, but that are true to your experience of the character, in a way that makes the stories about your demons, your fantasies and those things. We’re trying to make a book that’s personal but then kind of over-the-top and fun. I hope that’s what we’re bringing to it in some way.
Johns: I’m in the middle of Batman: Earth One, and I’ve only really done one graphic novel and I’m working on the second one, but like Scott, it’s hard. We’re going a very different way, to a guy who’s still struggling with loss and hasn’t really found that compass. He hasn’t found Ra’s Al Ghul or training. Alfred is not the best role model in our world. He’s kind of an ex-military guy who’s –
Miller: I like him. (laughs)
Johns: – he’s turning Bruce into a weapon in the Earth One universe, and that’s going to play out in what we’re doing next. It’s a very different Alfred, and that’s probably the biggest thing that I think we’ve probably changed so far.
Snyder: I love your Alfred.
DiDio: As co-publisher, my only real addition to this is giving the latitude to the creators as much as possible to tell the best stories possible. For me, personally, I get as much enjoyment as the fans do watching the stories and the excitement come in. When I see Frank’s work or Geoff’s or Scott’s or Jim’s, I just know that I’m really enjoying it and I’m hoping everybody else is, and the goal is to make sure that these guys have as much latitude as possible to tell the best stories possible. I listened to the stories about when you (Miller) were first breaking in and just breaking barriers in what you guys were doing, and we learned from your lessons and what you guys did, and hopefully we grew in a better way from that.
Miller: Well, please – I ask the audience’s thanks for getting rid of that yellow circle. It took work. But my strongest feeling about working on Batman was that, as any of these characters that have been around longer than I have, I regard what I do as part of a collective work. So if it weren’t for Dick Sprang, there might not be Neal Adams, and if it weren’t for Neal Adams, there wouldn’t be me, and so I try to contribute and have a new take. My main motivation, by the way, for doing Dark Knight, beyond Dick Giordano’s insistence that I do something with Batman, was that I realized I was about to turn 30, and Batman was still 29, and I just could not stand him being any younger than me! So I made him old. (laughter)