Scott Snyder On ‘Batman: Zero Year – Dark City': The ComicsAlliance Interview, Part One
In the pages of Batman, Scott Snyder, Greg Capullo, Danny Miki and FCO Plascencia are retelling the origin of Batman for the modern DC Universe with “Zero Year.” Told over the course of a year, “Zero Year” is divided in to three arcs, each representing a facet of Gotham City and Batman’s growth into a superhero, and it’s been wild right from the start. For each arc, ComicsAlliance is going in-depth with Snyder to find out more about how the story came together and what these elements mean, and with “Dark City” finishing just a few weeks ago, it’s time once again for our conversation to resume.
Today, in the first part of our interview, Snyder discusses the return of Dr. Death, why he wanted to pay homage to Frank Miller’s Year One and Dark Knight Returns while at the same time breaking away from them as much as possible, and why “Dark City” was the most challenging part of the story to write.
ComicsAlliance: Let’s talk about “Dark City.” The last time we talked, we were discussing the opening act, “Secret City,” and you were hinting at this arc being something that you wanted to do that was both metaphorically and literally about the idea of bones being broken and not being set correctly, and how Gotham City itself was growing. There’s a change in the city from Batman’s arrival. So obviously, that literally shows up in the form of a bone monster.
Scott Snyder: Right.
CA: So let’s start with Dr. Death. He’s a character who’s commonly regarded as the first supervillain to show up in Detective Comics, but I’m curious as to why you went with him rather than Hugo Strange or the Mad Monk, who are both earlier foes for Batman.
SS: I actually went back and considered using the Mad Monk in a different way, but I didn’t think I could pull it off. I’ve always loved the idea of Dr. Death and Lord Death Man. Not necessarily the iteration that was in Detective Comics back then, but this idea of Batman facing a character with death in his moniker at the beginning. So much of what Bruce needs to learn, I think, and this actually comes in a lot in the next section, “Wild City,” is that being Batman means transcending death. Both believing that you can physically, over and over again, but more than that, giving yourself up to this bigger idea and sacrificing any sort of personal life and your body to be larger. Your own physicality, your own mortality.
So that idea of having that character early in his story just felt right to me. It’s one of the major themes of the entire story, “Zero Year.” It’s not just Bruce learning what he has to be or how to be it, but that it’s something that he’s going to be forever, and that he has to make a decision. In the third arc, he gives a talk that’s my favorite part in all of “Zero Year,” to Alfred, about why Alfred shouldn’t expect him to settle down and marry. There’s secrets to it, too. Revelations about Bruce’s past.
It just felt right in that regard. It resonated with me, and I thought the design for Dr. Death could be really fun, with Greg Capullo. The idea of this arc that was really gothic and horror-driven, that it has the catacombs and the sense of bones growing in the dark and breaking, being broken and reforming, scar tissue and all this stuff with Gordon. Then, on top of that, the larger symbolic notion, the notion of death that I’m bringing to the story.
CA: So you did consider using the Mad Monk at one point?
SS: [Laughs] Yeah, for about five minutes. I looked back at all those villains to see if there was some way of doing it, even if it was just a news story that we could use, like “Batman Defeats Mad Monk,” because we did a montage at the end of Secret City where you see Batman on the roofs. I was like “Maybe he’s fighting the Mad Monk or something?” But it felt too pat for that part.
CA: Matt Wagner did those books pretty recently. Well, back in 2006, eight years ago.
SS: That’s crazy to think that, but I loved his work on those books. I remember getting them from my LCS back when I was considering “Zero Year,” a long time ago. His stuff is so good. I actually just re-read his Riddler story, where Riddler does that game show from a secret location where he televises it and does riddles that are peices of other riddles, so there’s a bigger one at the end. It’s really clever.
CA: I think that one was released to coincide with Batman Forever. It’s this weird little artifact of Riddler stories.
SS: The language is really interesting in it, too. The way Matt writes dialogue is so unexpected a lot of the time. It’s punchy and odd, such heavy wordplay — not just from Riddler. It’s very idiosyncratic and interesting, the way he writes dialogue.
CA: You’re a better man than I am, because I don’t think I could’ve talked myself out of writing a story where Batman fights a vampire who dresses like Cobra Commander [Laughs].
SS: Well, when I first got on Detective Comics, and this is probably talking out of school, but whatever, right? It’s you and me, no one’s listening. [Laughs] I was on Detective, and when I pitched “The Black Mirror,” one of the suggestions that came back from somebody, only for a minute, was “don’t you want to include a vampire?” because American Vampire was doing so well. I remember just being like “Oh, God.” I vowed to never do a vampire Batman ever after that.
CA: The reason I bring up the Mad Monk is that he was used relatively recently, but Dr. Death is much more obscure. For him to have that historical importance as the “first supervillain” — and I don’t know what makes the Mad Monk a “pulp villain” and Dr. Death a “supervillain” — he’s a very forgotten character. You’re just coming off of a reinvention of the Red Hood in the first story, and you’re going into a new origin for the Riddler that’s coming up in “Wild City.”
CA: So it’s intriguing to me that between two characters that are so well-known to readers, you’d go back to someone who’s historically important, but largely forgotten. Until you brought him up on Twitter, I hadn’t gone back and read those Golden Age stories in a while, and I’d forgotten about him. And for me to forget about the first Batman supervillain…
SS: I know! You and Mark Waid, dude. I’m always afraid with you continuity hounds. The other thing with this one was that I knew the real crux of the story had to be with his conflict with Jim Gordon, so I didn’t want it to be overshadowed by the formation of another villain.
I thought for a while about using Pamela Isley more heavily, just because her research comes into play in the third section, even though she doesn’t really appear. Her research is taken by the Riddler and he uses it to turn the city into this post-apocalyptic, overgrown playground. But I just worried that it would detract from the spotlight that was on Gordon and Batman, so the idea was having this villain who was more of a pawn but had something to say that was sort of deeply about being insulated.
That, to me, is what Dr. Death is saying. He’s trying to figure out a way to make your body, your person, infallible. You’ll get hit and your bones will heal and grow in a way that will make them ten times stronger. He might not have figured that out yet perfectly, but he’s on his way. That way, you won’t need anyone to save you. You won’t need any help. Your body is its own hero.
To me, that had a good parallel with the notion of Bruce approaching being Batman for all the wrong reasons in this arc. He deeply believes that he’s doing the right thing, but what Alfred points out is that there’s a huge difference between being Batman to inspire people and teach them to be defiant and rebel, and being Batman to punish them for not being there for you when you were a kid, shutting them out so all they can do is watch you do what they couldn’t. It was a matter of not taking someone that would take up too much of that spotlight.
CA: That said, at the end of that story, you do give him a very personal connection to Bruce Wayne. In the way that characters like Harvey Dent have that connection to Bruce Wayne rather than a connection to Batman, you bring back Dr. Death as this first fully-formed Batman challenge, and give him that connection.
SS: That was the idea. In a lot of ways, the Red Hood is a Bruce Wayne villain, but he’s more there as a mirror to him, saying “we need to accept that we mean nothing and your life can end on a sunny Tuesday afternoon at a marathon or on a plane, let’s embrace the meaninglessness and wear the red hood to court the wolf.” The idea is supposed to be a parallel to what Bruce needs to learn, but they don’t really have a connection to him that goes into his past. For me, the idea was to play with the idea of scar tissue, to show this demon of the past, in a sense. Batman is operating because thinks he knows what happened the night his parents were killed and who’s to blame.
I felt like creating a story that Dr. Death would have, showing him his own culpability in something that he didn’t even realize, back before he was Batman, to undercut all that stuff. It becomes this horrifying revelation as the balloon that he’s on plummets all at once. It felt right to me.
I was really nervous about that arc for a while. I was nervous about the whole story, as you know. I mean, for anyone listening, Chris is one of the best Batman compasses in the world. His opinions to me are gold, we have a very similar sensibility about the character and his mythology, so I totally hit you up to be like “do you agree with this interpretation?” It means a lot to me. I totally freaked out doing this story from the word “go.” I was so excited to do it, and so happy when DC greenlit it because I knew they wanted to do the origin, and I was worried they’d let someone else do it, and I had this idea if I was going to do it that it would be like this and cut 180 degrees from Year One. Then I started it, and it was terrifying. Every section is terrifying, because you’re touching material that is so sacred to you, personally.
Doing this middle section was rough in this regard, even though I knew Dr. Death was a character who wouldn’t be intimidating, the relationship with Jim Gordon was so intimidating. Giving Bruce a connection and a fault, and having him lose at the end of the arc. All of it was “Is this the wrong thing? Is this not the way to go?”
This is probably going to sound really hokey, but I went and saw Steven King speak at the New Yorker festival, it was him and Martin Amos. The funniest thing was that they asked Steven King how he knows when a novel’s over, and he said “when everyone’s dead.” [Laughs] It was the best answer. Then they ask Martin Amos, how do you know when you’ve made a wrong turn when you’re writing this long story that’s difficult to see from the air like the ones you work on? He gave this long answer, and he’s like “the truth is, you feel it in your tummy.” That stuck with me. You kind of get a sense that maybe you’re doing the wrong thing and everyone will hate it, but you know when it’s personally right for you. For me, all that stuff felt right in that arc.
CA: I hadn’t thought about it until you mentioned it just now, but I love the idea that Batman is realizing that he made a mistake and that things are going bad while he is literally on a deflating balloon. That cracks me up.
SS: I always love anvil-to-the-head symbolism. These characters, everything’s larger than life. Everything’s big. I was joking around with Jeff Lemire about what I should call the storm, and I was like “I’ll name it after you, dude! The super storm that’s coming to Gotham, I’ll name it Gus!” But then, no, I’ll just name it Renee, French for “reborn.” It’s totally on the nose, but you do it. Everything is oversized and big, it’s part of the fun of writing Batman. You make it emotionally as layered and as personal and twisted as you can make it, really dark, really personal, but everything else, the symbolism, the visual parallels, you make it over the top. The way FCO’s coloring it and Greg’s drawing it, it’s freeing to have the material be really emotionally freighted and nerve-wracking, but have the visual elements be so much larger than life.
CA: Continuing with the idea of talking about Dr. Death, Batman #29 is the climax of Batman vs. Dr. Death, and it’s also one of the most over-the-top comics I have read. Ever.
CA: There’s a lot of Frank Miller in it that I want to talk about, but it’s also so huge. I love this, that we’re in an age where the pendulum is starting to swing back from the Miller influence of dark, gritty stuff — which I love, and which you love, that’s obvious — you have created a canonical Batman origin where Batman is on his super-blimp flying through a storm made entirely of hot pink lightning to go fight a bone monster on a weather balloon with a big green question mark on it.
SS: Yeah, as there’s a super storm descending and the Riddler blows the retaining walls to flood everything with Poison Ivy’s research, and a device to steal the power from the electrical grid. It’s definitely… operatic.
CA: It’s very big.
SS: Honestly, that was the whole thing going into it. Part of it is that Year One looms so large for me, personally and canonically. There’s no beating or touching the hem of that origin, so the only way to do it is almost confuse people from the first few pages. “Gotham is post-apocalyptic? And it’s daytime? That doesn’t seem like Year One. The sky is yellow and everything is these punk rock colors, Batman is sleeveless on a dirtbike? What the f**k kind of origin is this?” You have to announce from page one that it’s the opposite.
Maybe it’s reactionary in that way, I don’t know. It’s also true to form with the stories that I like. You won’t find another Batman origin that’s green and hot pink everywhere, you know? Just neon coloring constantly. The feel was to show that you could do something that’s 180 degrees from Year One, but it’s still personal. The reason that story means so much to me is that growing up in New York, to see Batman in the real world all the sudden, to see him facing problems that you saw outside in Times Square, that was startlingly, viscerally exciting. You’ve seen that in Christopher Nolan’s films, with Batman in the real world in ways that are dark and intelligent and wonderful and to me, the way to do that was to go the opposite way and say “Can we have a ton of fun with it?” Basically hiding the medicine in all the crazy candy sugar. I worked as hard as I can, and Greg and FCO and Danny Miki, to make the heart of each chapter some of the best stuff we’ve done, emotionally, with the characters, but it’s packaged in getting bigger and crazier and more colorful around the gritty, dark, incredibly needlepoint beauty of Year One. Just going the other way.
CA: You and Greg Capullo lift a lot from Dark Knight Returns in this arc. In #27, there’s a panel of Batman on a telephone wire that looks like it’s right out of DKR, and then in #29, you’ve got him jumping in front of the lightning. Was it just instinctive, where you wrote “Batman in silhouette jumping in front of a bolt of lightning,” does Greg know immediately what you’re going for, or do you sit down and talk about what you’re going to do?
SS: No, we discuss it, and we actually had a big fight, one of our biggest arguments about that page. We’re like best friends, so this isn’t “I quit,” it’s a creative argument where we’re like “Dude, I’m telling you…” We went back and forth on #29 with very, very different opinions, but I can open up the script to #27 and tell you if I said “Let’s do something Frank Miller here.”
Here it is: “Batman, outside Gordon’s window. I imagine him perched on wires or a fire escape, dark and looming. The line is going to be about bearing witness, so let’s have him being almost like a gargoyle unto himself, watching through the window.” So he really referenced Miller himself there.
My thinking was that, for the lightning, we’d reference Frank Miller but only in that it would be a silhouette against the lightning. We’ve referenced Dark Knight Returns and Year One a couple times in different places, and our argument was how he’d be leaping. I wanted it the way it is in the book — I won this argument — and what Greg originally drew was an exact replica of the famous silhouette against lightning, with the same downwards pose with his knees pulled up. It was against pink lightning, but my thinking was that it was too literal, especially after I saw the page here in #27 where he was on the wires. I thought it was too much of an echo, and the point of the page was to do a young, acrobatic, desperate pose that was all about “I can make this jump.”
Greg agreed, so it was less of a reference than it was intended to be.
Greg works incredible magic in that regard, putting in references sometimes and then telling me after, and I’m like “Oh, I see, that’s from ‘Five Way Revenge.'” He brings so much in design and layers it with Batman’s history, it’s so fun. He’s a master of that stuff.
CA: Visually, it’s exactly what you said. The Batman of Dark Knight Returns is coming down on a dude, it’s his back-in-action, about to stomp some guys moment. In “Zero Year,” it looks like it’s a leap of faith. There’s no getting around it being a tribute to that scene, but it’s interesting in the context of the story.
SS: That was my argument. Greg pushed back at me a bit, because his feeling was that fans just love when you reference stuff.
CA: I mean, look, that’s true. [Laughs]
SS: They do! And I was not arguing that they wouldn’t like the page, I just thought it would serve us better to do a fresh, vibrant spin on it where it has the opposite emotion.
CA: Along the same lines, last time, you talked about how the end of this arc was when you were going to show the Wayne murders. At the time, I thought that was an interesting choice, to not lead with it at the beginning, but in the context of this story, you have it intercut with a scene of Batman failing. You have these two moments where Bruce Wayne is helpless.
SS: Helplessness was the idea. The brutality of that scene, when you’re in the point-of-view of Bruce, is that nobody’s there to help and you’re not strong enough to do it. The horror of that is the emotional takeaway all the time, the terror of seeing a scary man with a gun shooting at you and your parents, and the tragedy of seeing them dead. The emotion that sticks with me is the helplessness that engenders Batman. So here, mirroring that with how helpless he is on the balloon as it goes down, is the idea. He failed because he didn’t allow other people to help him in the present.
Next: Snyder talks about the development of Batman’s relationship with Jim Gordon, placing the Riddler as the major villain of Batman’s origin, and the structure of the story.