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The legend on Final Crisis, Batman R.I.P. and what’s next.
By Laura Hudson
[Editor’s note: This story ran in the Spring 2009 issue of Comic Foundry Magazine]
Final Crisis is over, Batman is dead, and the enigmatic scribe behind it all is ready to take a look back at the work that culminates his career at DC Comics, and what it tells us about the stories we tell ourselves.
Final Crisis ties together a lot of plot threads and themes from your work the DC Universe over the years. How long have you specifically been navigating towards this story?
For me, honestly, I’ve been building towards this since those very first Animal Man issues where I figured out what I wanted to do with superhero comics.
Did you know that this was the end point, or is that something that you realized over time as you were building certain narratives?
When you start out writing shared universe comics, you tend to come in with a grand vision based on years of consuming the material and thinking about it. But you don’t get to do Batman and Superman when you start, so the universe-altering epics take a while to get to. I’ve worked almost exclusively at DC for over 20 years and I’ve only done two major crossover events (DC One Million and Final Crisis).
The longer I’ve gone on working, the more I’ve been able to weave together all of my DC stories into one coherent mega-narrative going back decades. Final Crisis brings a lot of that stuff full circle to The Coyote Gospel in Animal Man No. 5. The idea of drawings emerging from white paper. If the “paper” is the Ground of Being in the DC Universe and let’s just imagine that the paper itself is “alive,” how would that pure pristine consciousness feel about being written on, you know, with all these mad stories of passion and violence and need? Especially if it learned to feel from watching us. You can trace this inspiration back to that brilliant Brian Bolland cover for Animal Man No. 5.
Was there a specific thematic intention from the beginning, or did the story evolve and take shape on its own?
I’ve always been exploring the bizarre relationship between the real world and our fictional role models. I’m fascinated by the “reality” of comic book characters like Superman and Batman, who are really much bigger than we are. They’ll be around when we’re dead. In fact, they were around before most of us were even alive. I find it incredible that drawings on paper can make people laugh or cry or get angry. You know these primitive, occult marks that really quite magically come alive in our heads.
Living worlds like the DC Universe or the Marvel Universe only exist in two dimensions yet occupy full holographic sensurround space in the minds of readers — universes tended and maintained across decades by generations of stewards who devote their lives to keeping Superman and Spider-Man and all the others alive. How weird is that? It’s a real place, a two-dimensional real place. So I guess — I’m trying to be an explorer in these worlds. The way I see it, I’m going to a real place, where rather than write “stories” that force the characters into situations of my devising, I’m trying to study and take notes and send back reports to the 3-D world. I don’t want to remake their world as our world necessarily. It’s more like — look what’s possible when you can play freely in a world so different from our own.
How much harder is this to execute when you’re working on a mega-crossover like Final Crisis, and there’s so many other moving parts and plot threads and other creators involved?
It’s hard, but you just have to turn the problems into part of the process and part of the story. When you’re dealing with continuity disconnects or whatever, you have to take advantage of those and make them part of the story. You’ve got a lot of people working on a shared universe, and different people have different perspectives on what to do, so I’m trying to make that part of the work. By having a god smash up spacetime and deliberately calling into question much of what we regard as “continuity” for the duration of this event, Final Crisis is also a comment on what it’s like to make one of these Crisis stories. And it’s an epic superhero story at the same time, and it’s kind of about DC Comics as an entity and here’s my take on how it felt to get into this universe as a kid or any number of things. Like I say, it’s the story of the ultimate war between the pure unbounded blank page and the sinister ink that marks it! [Laughs.]
So, I don’t know, yeah, it’s hard to coordinate, but that’s also the fun of it, really. Part of the fun of DC Comics is that for 70 years it’s been almost impossible to ultimately coordinate DC Comics continuity. Not even the original Crisis on Infinite Earths could do that, hence the endless reboots and time lines that never stick and always spiral off into chaos again. Marvel Comics grew naturally from a very focused vision. It was Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko and New York City. Marvel was the vision of a couple of men and was able to grow from a single unified movement. DC Comics has grown out of dozens of different franchises and comic lines, all with tones and approaches that often clash with each other. It’s pretty easy to keep the Marvel universe on a straight course, but DC will always be a bucking bronco and, like I say, that’s part of the fun if you’re willing to let the two companies be different and to enjoy the mad ride. A lot of fans want DC continuity to run as smoothly as Marvel’s, but I don’t think that will never happen and I don’t think it should. So for me, DC is more fun, more DC and less like Marvel when it embraces its sci-fi heritage and its sprawling, disconnected web of constantly shifting worlds and characters.
Have you been satisfied with the way that Final Crisis has been handled given all the complications?
Yeah. I’d have liked a lot more pages, but I only had seven issues and a couple of tie-ins, which meant I had to leave out one or two things I might have done.
Otherwise, I think the only real complication was losing our artist [JG Jones]halfway through, but that was dealt with very quickly and who wouldn’t be pleased with Carlos Pacheco and Doug Mahnke as replacements? I’d already promised the book wouldn’t be late, so the art change became necessary to keep on track. JG got to do all the scenes I most wanted to see him do, right up to the Tawky Tawny fight, so I was fine with it. Then Marvel swooped in on Carlos, and Doug Mahnke stepped in from Superman Beyond, and it all worked out fine.
Final Crisis was supposed to end in December, and now it ends in January. Given the circumstances, I think everyone did a brilliant job and kept any delays to an absolute minimum.
How did the change in artists affect the way that you dealt with the work? Did you rewrite anything knowing that it wasn’t going to be JG for some of the final issues?
No, not at all. Once I knew that Doug Mahnke was doing it, and that it was going to pick up all the strands from Superman Beyond, I was happy. Doug’s up there along with people like Frank Quitely, Phil Jimenez, Chris Weston, JG Jones, Cameron Stewart and JH Williams, you know, as one of the best interpreters of my stuff. I’d work with him on anything.
Once I had Doug on board – actually, issue 7, I think, is going to be like Back to the Future, when Marty McFly winds up playing “Johnny B. Goode” like Hendrix. That’s Final Crisis No. 7. It feels kind of wild, and you know, I’m loving it, so — Doug Mahnke is perfect for that. The work he’s done in Superman Beyond is just some of the best comics I’ve ever seen. I challenged him to do the Sgt. Pepper of hero comics and he more than delivered. There haven’t been real, full-on cosmic comics since the ’70s, but Doug just knocks it out of the park AND he’s a fan’s dream artist since he’s quick! He drew the whole of Final Crisis No. 7 over Christmas and New Year with NO loss of quality. The guy’s incredible.
One of the big problems with both Marvel and DC is the difficulty of trying to execute these huge events with all of these different people. Do you think more lead time needs to be built into them?
The thing is, the more lead time you build in, the more people will just take advantage of lead time. Business practices have changed. Back in the days when comics were published on a regular monthly or bi-monthly basis, the star system wasn’t really in existence, people didn’t get paid quite as well and fan expectations were not as high.
A lot of artists are naturally wary of fan pressure and the excessive criticism that come with a higher profile, so they put their all into a project, knowing that if they do less than the best they’re capable of, 50 jeering bastards on the Internet will turn up to personally insult them.
Also, when an artist can beef up his income by selling original art pages to collectors, he’ll want to do his best. And with a lot of these guys, the best takes time and effort and planning.
So I don’t think it would speed things up at all to start the project earlier. A lot of artists would just use up all the time to do their best work on the first issue and still be late with the second or third.
Ultimately, fans need to adapt to the fact that there are some comics that can be produced quickly on a monthly basis, while some other comics will take longer because the artists involved have different working methods. And that will affect the quality of what you read in different ways. Not everyone is the same.
So it’s just the nature of the beast, that’s just the nature of the mega-crossover?
Of course. I’m one of the people in the camp who would rather wait for top-quality work than see production-line level quality across the board. There is a middle ground here, but you can’t expect all of your favorite artists and writers to be able to occupy that middle ground, unfortunately.
I mean, there are a lot of fans out there who are like, “I want it, and I want it now.”
Yeah, I know there are, and they’ll all get a well-deserved, long-awaited, short, sharp shock when they finally realize that real life is less indulgent of their petulant whims than mummy and her ever-giving tit! [Laughs].
I’m sure Dr. Freud had a name for this kind of oral compulsive bird-beak behavior but, in a world where there are still too many mothers whose dearest dream is a single bowl of rice with which to feed their diseased and doomed children, it’s really hard to have sympathy with a bunch of blubbery malcontents bitching about the frequency of their comic books.
You get it when it’s done, o ye privileged, dissatisfied child of the Capitalist Society of Spectacle.
So is Final Crisis your big, final story with DC, or do you see yourself in the future coming back to tell other stories on this scale?
Final Crisis is a big epic kind of statement for me, about superheroes, about comics, about DC comics in particular, about life these last few years in the West, about storytelling and about the nature of God. I’m sure people will talk about it for a long time to come. I hope so. But yeah, I’m still working at DC for the foreseeable future, and there are some other stories I’d like to get to. But I don’t think they’ll be on this scale again, or even set entirely within the DC Universe per se.
The story of the DCU is a continuing, never-ending story, and I love adding to it, but right now I’m taking some time away to rethink and work on new material without the pressure of deadlines or expectations.
You mentioned that it’s a statement — what are you trying to communicate about the nature of stories, as you mentioned?
It’s about why we tell stories at all and what they’re for – why particularly the hero story. With Superman Beyond, we’re trying to get right into the basis of what is that hero story: the brave guy trying to protect his “tribe” from threat. How far back to the primal core can we take that one? Why do we, as a species, like to repeat this particular story to ourselves over and over? Why is the human race obsessed with the idea of the hero? Why do we all expect to be the hero in our own story? Why are superhero stories so popular in these times of real-life crisis?
From there, I was thinking about the power of stories over people.
And that’s when we expand out into the big idea of, why is our culture telling itself such a bad story right now? Why all the guilt and self-loathing? Don’t we realize how real and how dangerous this kind of self-hypnosis can be? Why do we keep telling our children they’re doomed to inherit a fouled, wrecked planet of cynics, pedophiles and gangsters? Could we be talking our culture into extinction? And I know a lot of them are true stories, but at the same time there are other true stories that are better, but we tend to downplay them currently in our culture.
And what would happen if we told better stories?
So for me it’s about the whole feeling of having suffered through George Bush, Osama bin Laden and that whole — Tony Blair, that climate of fear and terror. The sense that the 21st century had been cancelled. That was Darkseid and Mandrakk. And there was that kind of sense of that, I think, in people’s hearts. So I was trying to look at that, you know, put that in the context of what I do for a living, with the hero story. Actually putting on paper how it felt to watch your hopes for the future disintegrate, your faith destroyed, your heroes mocked and showing how they come back.
I mean, do you feel differently now that, for example, Obama is president? Has your perspective changed at all since Obama’s win?
I don’t know whether Obama’s election will change the status quo or put any real dent in the side of bad things that go on in the world, but in terms of a symbolic and metaphoric victory of the imagination, as an indicator of possibility, Obama’s induction seems huge. He brings a sense, at least, that change can happen, and because it seems quite a radical change, it’s almost as if the future has permission to continue. I think it will make America feel better about itself — the story that I expect America to start telling itself now is that, “Hey, we’re waking up out of a bad time into something different, therefore new, therefore potentially better.” So maybe we could take advantage of that to start talking honestly about terror, drugs, race, the economy, whatever. So bringing us back, I’m turning all of this real-world stuff into fuel for my DC superhero “myth,” where I can, in my simple way, tackle some of these big themes using the broad language of metaphor and symbol and colors.
The first two pages of Final Crisis No. 7 should’ve proved quite amusing in the context of Obama in the White House, incidentally.
Was the ending of Final Crisis something that you brought to DC, or did they have something in mind already?
The ending was always part of the story and it’s the ending you read, but I did add a scene at DC’s request. They wanted to close down the original cycle of Crisis stories with the parallel worlds and the Monitors and clear the decks for a unified New Earth and a new direction.
For me, it was just a case of leaving things nice and tidy for the next guy, which is what I’ve done. Final Crisis kind of takes the DC Universe to an ultimate limit of nihilism and despair, but obviously it does have to be put back to a certain extent, because publishing has to continue. The story ends, but as part of a shared universe ongoing narrative it can never really end, so I had to make sure I was leaving a bundle of plot threads obviously open for the future.
In terms of Batman R.I.P., how did the idea for the death of Batman come about?
Way back in 2005 when I was hired to do Batman, I spent a few days working out my plans for the long-term arc, and they included a sketch of Batman kissing the woman, who turned out to be the Jezebel Jet character, in bright sunlight, and underneath I’d written “Batman R.I.P.” It combined with
a story idea I’d scribbled down as “Doctor X,” where Batman would be up against the ultimate “diabolical mastermind” mystery character in a paranoid duel to the finish.
So this long-form story was plotted to end at the same time as Final Crisis, which was intended to cross over right after the final six-part Batman R.I.P. deconstruction of Batman. When Dan [DiDio] heard the title, he said, “Well that’s great.” He goes, “I’ll actually go for that, we can do something here with Batman that we haven’t done before, if we take that title slightly more literally.” I then put the death of Batman through my own filter and here we are.
Batman is a huge and very profitable franchise for DC — was there any resistance to the idea of killing Batman?
Don’t worry, I predict he’ll continue to be big and profitable! As I keep saying, this is only part of the ongoing story of Batman. Batman has been around since 1939 — happy birthday, Bruce! — and he ain’t going anywhere.
This is about telling a story that never ends while still trying to make it twist and turn and flip. So we’re simply moving onto the next amazing chapter in the continuing story of Batman. And more than that I don’t want to say.
For me, the only essential question of a superhero universe — and a good superhero story — is not “How did that happen?” or “Why did that happen?” but “What happens next ?!!!”
It’s almost nice, I think, that you didn’t go for the more traditional death, because that’s been so overdone at this point that it’s hard to believe that anybody really dies. In comic books we see everyone come back eventually. I can’t lie. These guys are all going to come back somewhere, somewhen, and for some reason that seems to make sense at the time. I decided to acknowledge that as kind of a natural law in superhero universes.
I thought that was one of the nice touches in Final Crisis, when Martian Manhunter died and Superman said something at the eulogy like, “We pray for a resurrection.”
Yeah, because you have to get used to this sort of thing if you live in the DC Universe.
For you, after this story, what are the mountains left to climb for you? Do you feel like there are goals, at least within the DCU, that you have not yet achieved?
I’ve got some ideas. This is it for a certain type of approach, I think, and it’s time for a little break. I’ve been doing superhero comics on a daily basis now since JLA in 1996, and it’s kind of — it’s a very perpetual motion way of writing, like playing a certain kind of music, like a 12-bar blues over and over again. So you have to find different styles to keep it interesting.
I’ve been coming up with a lot of new ways to tell stories and new ideas for page layouts in recent stuff, but it’s all been done on the run. I’d like to combine the clarity and simplicity of All-Star Superman with more experimental storytelling approaches in the next batch of material.
There was a lot of discussion in the last year — particularly after Robert Kirkman’s video manifesto — about corporate versus creator-owned work. How important is it to you to do creator-owned work?
I think it’s essential, and I’ve got three or four new projects coming out from Vertigo in 2009-10. Most people who are doing this work on corporate franchise characters have better ideas of their own for stories and love to do their own characters, but the market for creator-owned nonsuperhero stuff isn’t that great in the short term, especially. These books just don’t sell like superhero comics. Readers come back to the characters they recognize, and the brands they’re familiar with. The comics audience is reading hero books. That might change if we get past this climate of fear and reaction, and people maybe will start looking for more progressive or forward-looking material. I hope so, because I’m doing some pretty weird stuff next! There’s a very obvious move towards a psychedelia in popular culture right now in music and fashion and advertising, and I just want to see a little bit more of that new model cosmic head stuff in our comics, which is why I’ve been doing the kind of material I have recently. It’s hard to sell your own characters, although those of us who’ve got a bit of status in the business can always create our own oddball books. But the less commercial stuff rarely brings the money or recognition that a run on Batman will get you, so most of us do those books as well. I really like writing superhero comics, so I don’t find this to be too much of a burden.
Did you see Final Crisis as solely directed specifically at the core fanbase, or is it something new readers could pick up as well?
I tried to make it something anyone could read.
Readers who are very deeply into DC continuity will spot a ton of references that people less familiar with DC won’t get, but readers new to this will understand that a universe of familiar superheroes has been infested by some ultimate evil, conveniently called Darkseid. Longtime fans will recognize Anthro and Metron and Dan Turpin, new readers will recognize familiar fictional figures like the caveman, the space god, the chain-smoking private ‘tec. It’s a story about gods so I tried to deal only with characters and situations that are archetypal. Good girl versus bad girl, exiled prince, redeemed villain, etc.
I suppose I see more of it as a science-fiction/horror story starring the DC Universe. DC was always the sci-fi comic company, you know, so it’s going back to the roots. It might be a little different from the way these things have been approached before, but I see that as a plus, not a minus. It’s ultimately the story of the Monitor, a godlike abstract intelligence, reacting to what it believes to be the ultimate story.
What is about superhero comics that compels you, as opposed to other types of narrative?
Because this narrative can deal with the big questions, you know. You can talk about life, and death, and guilt, and loss and all these big capital-letter things, but using outrageous, colorful super people. I kind of see it as a metaphoric thing, so it’s like the stories of the Greek gods. It’s all about human passions distilled to essences. In superhero comics you can actually have Superman punching guilt, punching fear. I just love playing that stuff out in such a direct, concrete way. I love the kind of big epic sweep of comics, and the Jungian, bombastic sweep of the language. It fits with how I see the world. So the more like movies they get or the more like TV plays they get, the less I like them.
I really think comics are more fun when they play to their strengths, and do the things that movies can’t do, and go to places in the imagination where movies can’t go. Let’s take up the type of storytelling that movies daren’t do, you know? Why are we conforming to Hollywood storytelling styles and losing sales when we can do anything? I think its time for comics to become, you know, more Matt Fraction, much more Brendan McCarthy, more psychedelia, more cosmic, more freewheeling, more internal. Comics begin with a guy, with a pencil and an imagination, or a guy at his word processor, and after that anything can happen. And so rarely does.
Comics don’t have to be burdened by the rules of screenwriting, or by film budgets. It’s becoming very easy for comics creatives to find work in Hollywood these days. Most of the big names in comics are making money in Hollywood in some capacity as far as I’m aware, and that’s as it should be. But now that we no longer need to apply for the gig, now that we don’t need to show them we too can write action hero movies, can we all get back to the business of blowing minds, please? And not just in the creator-owned stuff, but in the pages of Iron Man and Avengers and Batman. The page is wide open for creativity.
With Final Crisis and especially with issue 7, I’ve been working towards this storytelling technique I’m calling channel-zapping comics. Why spend a page on a scene when you can press all the same buttons with a single loaded panel? Why waste readers’ time on every mind-numbing detail of story when you can blitz them with the good bits and move onto the next thing?
People consume images and assign meanings very rapidly, and across multiple channels, all the time these days. They like things they can participate with, and I feel as if storytelling should be adapting to this stuff, learning from it and trying new things. Comics, with their minimal budgets, can afford to take risks and break rules in this area that Hollywood and TV producers are generally afraid to do. We’re at the front line of the world’s collective imagination, so there’s no need to be so timid.