TALKING BATMAN WITH GRANT MORRISON
by Zack Smith
Along with scripting Final Crisis, Grant Morrison has taken some of DC’s biggest icons on some of their most psychological and offbeat adventures. His run on Batman is no exception, drawing from the character’s 70-year history to bring up new figures in the Batman’s life, such as his son Damian, and revamped historical curiosities, such as last year’s fan-favorite “The Club of Heroes” storyline. Now he’s poised for the arc that his whole run’s been building toward, the ominously-titled “Batman RIP.”
When we got to chat with Morrison recently, we asked him some about these upcoming storylines and the rumors surrounding them…and quickly got into a free-flowing discussion about the Dark Knight’s life and times. The discussion got so involved that it wound up expanding a planned two-part series into three. So sit back and relax as Grant Morrison takes you on a guided tour into the mind and history of the Batman.
Newsarama: Grant, let’s talk Batman. You’re currently doing the “Joe Chill in Hell” storyline, and you really seem to be deconstructing Batman, what he’s gone through in the past on a very philosophical level. You’ve spoken in the past about how you saw where Batman was, mentally, when you started working on the series. Where is this particular storyline going to take him?
Grant Morrison: Again, it’s basically trying to push Batman to the limit, to take him to emotional and physical places he’s never been before so we can really see how strong he is. The stronger a hero is the greater the challenges he should face. We want to put Batman under real pressure, to give readers get a better, more dramatic insight into the incredible physical and moral strength he does possess when the going gets rough.
So the idea behind “Joe Chill” and the current storyline is not only to expose weak spots that Batman himself has been unaware of for a long time, it’s to develop certain elements of his biography which may have been overlooked for a while and make those elements central to his undoing. It’s a story about karma in the strictest sense of the word – in his efforts to understand the derangement of his arch-enemy, the Joker, the young Batman inadvertently sets in motion an unstoppable chain of events which now threaten to destroy him utterly.
When I started this story, my first idea was, “What if all the Batman adventures from the 1930s until now were all part of one guy’s life, and he’s really gone through all this stuff, and it’s happened over the space of, say, 15 years, potentially?” To make it all work and still keep Batman at his peak, I settled on him being about 35 right now, so let’s say he’s been Batman since he was 19 or 20 years old.
Now try and imagine all that continuity squeezed into fifteen years. What you have is a guy who started his mission really well and was doing a great job, and then Robin comes along and that makes the job even better, the two of them start cleaning up the streets.
Then things begin to go a little bit wrong when Dick Grayson reaches college age and leaves. And then you have a succession of different Robins with disastrous results and consequences. You have the Joker’s paralyzing Barbara Gordon, you have Bane breaking Batman’s back, No Man’s Land…(laughs). All that’s supposed to have happened in the last few years of one man’s life!
So what would that do to your head? What we’re seeing now is kind of culmination of all these terrible things that have happened to him, and the fact that his mission has run into so many problems, and led to so many deaths. The psychological result of that will play directly into the storyline in the coming months, where we’ll get to see how Batman breaks down, and how he comes back from it…or not.
NRAMA: Now, after your current story, you’re doing “Batman RIP.” That’s been getting a lot of attention, a lot of people speculating. What can you tell us about that story at this time?
GM: I can tell you this much – this is the first story I had planned when Peter Tomasi, the editor at the time, asked me to do Batman, which must have been two years ago now… longer. And the very first story title I noted down was “Batman RIP”. I had a particular image for the cover, which Alex Ross has done a bang-zoom- thousand-times-better version of for the second part of the story.
So it came from there…and out of that notion came the idea for the big overarching story I’ve been telling since I first came on the book. Everything…the “Zur-En-Arrh” graffiti, the Joker prose story, the Club of Heroes…every detail that’s been in the book for the last couple of years is significant, everything is a clue to the grand design that’s unfolding.
My run on Batman is a 25-chapter novel that reaches its climax in “RIP” and maneuvers Batman into the greatest danger he’s ever known, at the mercy of the world’s deadliest criminal lunatics.
And yeah, I’ve seen all kinds of speculation about “RIP,” but it’s not necessarily what people think it’s going to be, although there are very big changes coming to Batman. When we say that this is the story that changes the legend of the Dark Knight forever, we’re quite serious about that.
I’m also looking forward to bringing back the Joker the way we set him up in issue #663. This is my attempt to write the scariest Joker yet and really get into the howling heart of homicidal madness!
What else? We finally get to see the Club of Villains we hinted at in the “Club of Heroes” storyline from last year – Charlie Caligula, Scorpiana, Pierrot Lunaire, the murder mime…and a bunch of other cool freaks. And there’s a new Batmobile, a new costume, more Bat-Mite…
It’s Batman’s final exam, I suppose, all leading to a new take on the characters and the set-up.
NRAMA: There was a rumor floating around about Bruce Wayne becoming a New God. Can you comment on that one?
GM: That was some wee wisp of nothing that got out. When we first spoke about Final Crisis, coming out of the Seven Soldiers series, I had the New Gods cast down onto Earth, and because they’d lost their former shapes, they were cast as spirits or avatars possessing human bodies, like Voodoo gods. [as shown in Seven Soldiers: Mr. Miracle.
For a brief moment back in 2006, I discussed the idea that the gods could then take over the bodies of familiar DC characters - so that an appropriate hero or villain could become the new Orion or Darkseid, say, and someone equally appropriate would become the new Lightray, kind of thing.
That didn’t happen because no one wanted to mess with either Jack Kirby’s or Gerry Conway’s intellectual property by saying Lightray was now inhabiting Firestorm or something like that. Quite rightly, no-one was willing to change existing DC characters into Kirby characters, because that would immediately confuse the ownership of the character and somebody would get cheated out of equity if that character was used in a movie or TV show or whatever. It’s very much a copyright issue.
Obviously, someone heard some faint years-old echo of this discarded idea and pawned it into the notion that Bruce Wayne was going to become a New God. That was never going to happen. That’s just insane. (laughs)
NRAMA: Fair enough. Let’s get into what you were saying about Batman’s life. I remember the first Batman comic story proper that I read was a Tor paperback reprint of the miniseries The Untold Legend of the Batman, where every page had some sort of flashback to how he met this character, or how he got this item. I was nine or 10 and just felt overwhelmed, trying to think of all that happening to one person.
GM: Oh yeah, definitely! When you see it that way, it’s a hell of a lot to go through in one life! And that’s what makes it interesting to me.
Also, we know that Batman has trained – he’s one of the greatest martial artists in the world, he’s mastered yoga and extreme meditation techniques. So he is a man who has the resources to deal with anything that’s thrown at him… and the stuff he’s had to deal with has been almost apocalyptic! It’s fun to confront that, and work through that, and see what that kind of life would do to a human being.
It’s also nice to think that he had a period in his 20s where he and Robin were like the Batman and Robin from the TV show, all sunny and fun and the Joker was a bit crazy, but not killing people. However, that period was only about a couple of real-time years, and then it was over and suddenly the Joker’s an increasingly-darker homicidal maniac again. So we kind of get to have our cake with all the different versions of Batman being facets of one man.
NRAMA: That’s something you’ve really been delving into in your run, like the homage with the pop art exhibition in your first storyline, or the “Club of Heroes,” or the return of the obscure supervillainesses in the one with Ra’s Al Guhl. A big thing in the last 20 years has been to say, “well, here’s a vaguely-defined portion of Batman’s early career that we can plug a story into,” but you’re going for a more holistic take that says, “all these stories happened – how does this affect the character?”
GM: Yeah, that’s exactly what I did. I sat down and I read as much as I could, then I created a timeline of about 15 years where all of this stuff could have taken place. And, like I said but it gives us access to all kinds of ways of thinking about this guy, and allows us to tap into the different types of visuals that Batman has had over the years.
“Holistic” is a good word for it. It’s a way of taking on the entire canon of Batman, and using it as fodder for stories. So yeah, we can develop throwaway notions from the 30s, the 40s, the 50s, the 60s…there’s no end to it.
NRAMA: God help me, but I would like to know how you would integrate all those crazy stories from the late 1950s and early 1960s – “The Rainbow Batman,” or the one where Robin “dies” on an alien world, those tales.
GM: Oh, all those…that’s what the overarching story I’m telling is all about ultimately. It all ties into that era. “Robin Dies at Dawn”, the story you mention – Batman #156, I think it was – [Newsarama note: He’s correct!] was a 1963 story about Batman undergoing an isolation experiment for the military, and he went crazy for a couple of weeks and decided to give up being Batman.
It’s been almost entirely neglected by writers ever since, along with most of the Batman material from that period, and to me, that’s one of the great Bill Finger stories of the past. (laughs) It’s an event that must have had such a big psychological effect on Batman that I wanted to go back there and explore what happened during that 10-day period of being isolated, and from there start to re-integrate all those bizarre 50s stories and give them a new context as part of the current more ‘realistic’ take on Batman and his life.
All of those adventures are not necessarily what he thought they were, but some big things are revealed to have happened to him in his early 20s, things that were unusual and out of the ordinary. So yeah, those stories, the craziest stories, those are the ones that drive the engine of this huge arc I’ve been working through since my first issue.
NRAMA: The strangest Batman story I remember was from this reprint book I found at the library in middle school, Batman from the ‘30s to the ‘70s—
GM: Yeah, yeah, I had that! That was my favorite book and I still refer to it. Re-reading (it) encouraged me to think of Batman’s adventures from the ‘30s on as one big life story.
NRAMA: There’s this one where Batman and Robin have to do this thing underwater, only they can’t come up because they’ll get the bends, and they wind up spending like a week fighting crime underwater in a bat-submarine…
GM: Yeah! God, that was a great one! (laughs) Those were the days, when Batman and Robin on a riverbed was enough to sell millions of copies. Those stories represent the time in Batman’s life when he was first being influenced by Robin. I imagine that Batman – the 20-year-old Batman of Year One and the Golden Age stories, who’s given himself this mission - is working his issues out, but he’s still very grim and angry and lacks responsibility.
And then he meets this little poor kid, a carnival kid, a trapeze artist. And I figure that as soon as he met Robin, it changed his life, because suddenly he had someone to talk to. Bruce Wayne was emotionally frozen when his parents were killed, so he really needed Robin. He never got to have a pal like this when he was young because he was grieving. And where Bruce was a fairly sheltered rich kid, Dick Grayson is a rough-and-tumble street-smart circus boy so Batman learns a lot from the kid.
And I can kind of imagine Robin introducing all this cool stuff to the Batcave, the submarines and dinosaurs all these crazy kid elements, and maybe even convincing Batman to wear a lighter-colored costume. They were like kids together. Emotionally Bruce was still a boy and some of those goofier older stories work more ‘realistically’ when seen in that light.
And again, when Robin leaves to go to college – at that point, we get the Denny O’Neill/Neal Adams stories which returned to a grimmer, 30s influenced Batman…and that’s obviously his emotional response to losing his little best friend to the grown-ups. (laughs).
NRAMA: They had those in that reprint book, and you have Bruce Wayne talking about ditching Wayne Manor and getting a penthouse in the middle of Gotham City right after Dick goes to college, and it’s like reading a midlife crisis.
GM: That’s exactly it! Although technically, I see that period – the whole Talia/Ra’s Al Ghul thing – as happening around the time Batman was 25, that set-up, with the penthouse and that whole 1970s atmosphere, the sexy Adams/Rogers Batman with the girlfriends – that was Midlife Crisis Batman, you’re absolutely right.
NRAMA: Well, getting back to your run, you’ve had Damian in the series, and given what you’ve said about Robin, how do you see Damian representing almost a new step in that saga?
GM: Well, Damian plays into a few story ideas that will become more central as we get to the end of RIP. I always loved the idea of Batman having a kid from Mike Barr’s Son of the Demon story. That was the initial inspiration for doing a grown-up ‘evil’ son, even though I hadn’t read the story in years and couldn’t remember what happened in it! (laughs)
I just felt that Damian added an interesting dynamic to Batman’s life story. And he’s fun to hate - he’s a smarmy, difficult little character, but I often like to start characters off as obnoxious or awkward and then put them through a journey where they get to change and grow and ultimately to show their heroic qualities. And Damian is that character, and he’ll be playing a big role in RIP and beyond. We’ve already established that he may be the next generation’s Batman and we’ll be revisiting that possibility.
NRAMA: In the flash-forward story in issue #666, a few people noted that Damian-as-Batman kind of looked like you…
GM: Yeah, well, that had nothing to do with me – that was the way Andy (Kubert) drew it, and I looked at it and went, “Oh God, not another bald guy!” (laughs) I had written him as having a buzz cut, I think, but Andy drew him bald. I think a lot of people just assumed that I stuck myself into a comic again, but that was never intended.
NRAMA: Well, you have talked about putting yourself into Batman’s mindset…
GM: Yeah. Well, that’s more physical stuff. It’s like method writing, you know, where I like to experience at least a portion of what these guys go through. Writing Batman, I’ve been working out a lot, running up hills, meditating…and going to posh parties (laughs). I try to get into that whole Bruce Wayne mindset as much as possible without actually putting myself in the costume and interacting with thugs.
NRAMA: How long do you see yourself writing Batman?
GM: Indefinitely! I’m having a great time. I’ve got huge plans for the book after “RIP” and Final Crisis, and I want to stay on and take the characters to the next level of the story. Having almost completed the long-form run that’s been “Batman and Son” through to “Batman RIP,” I’ve decided to be kinder to my patient readers and the new stuff after “RIP” will be more in the vein of single-issue or at most two-issue stories with lots of new villains and new situations.
In our special extended interview, running next week, Morrison discusses the finale of All-Star Superman and gives hints to some of his other upcoming projects.