Few figures loom larger of the pop culture landscape than Gotham’s Dark Knight. From wildly successful film franchises to television series to countless comic books, Batman is America’s hero, and one who has continued to resonate with readers for seventy-five years since he first appeared in Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s Detective Comics #27. Given that 2014 marks Batman’s seventy-fifth anniversary and the numbering on Detective Comics has finally caught up, this Wednesday’s Detective Comics #27 is a mega-sized anthology issue full of homages to classic Batman stories and brand new Bat-tales to thrill and chill Gothamites of every stripe.
While Batman’s origin is being expertly examined in Scott Snyder’s current “Zero Year” arc in the New 52 Batman series, it’s important to celebrate the character’s first appearance. To kick off the 2014 version of Detective Comics #24, DC has enlisted Brad Meltzer to reimagine Batman’s very first adventure, “The Case of the Criminal Syndicate”. A lifelong fan of Batman himself, this was a very exciting and humbling experience for Meltzer, who was kind enough to to emerge from the Batcave to talk with us about Batman’s history, his love for the character and why we are so obsessed with his origin story.
Nerdist: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us today.
Brad Meltzer: Oh no, thank you guys. You know I’m a Nerdist lover.
N: How convenient because we’re Brad Meltzer lovers. I really enjoyed your reinterpretation of “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate”. It was a lot of fun.
BM: Oh, you read it already? That’s good!
N: We have this obsession as a culture, especially in the fanboy community, with origin stories and I thought it was a nice blending of the old Batman and the new. I’m guessing there was considerably fewer pieces of high tech surveillance gear in the original.
BM: You’re right, you’re right. There was also a lot less purple.
N: Well, that’s one of those cool moments when you, as a reader, go, “Okay, I see where this is going!”
BM: That’s the thing. The beautiful part of this is — you know, again, I’m as obsessive with this as I am with just about anything, and when you look at it, all the pieces are right there. I’ve read that story – do you know how many times I’ve read that story over my life? You’re telling me that there’s a vat of acid right there at the end? Where have I seen that before?
N: Yeah, exactly.
BM: What’s funny is – and this is the stuff that makes me crazy – you watch Batman race into something and at the last second, what does he do? He checks his utility belt says, “Oh, there’s a wrench here! That might be useful.” It truly is the gun on the mantle that must be used, and I think what’s so great about it. The utility belt, so clearly in that moment, is just for design. It’s right there, it’s all right there – they just haven’t found all the pieces yet. It’s kind of like, I imagine, when Mozart was little, you know he’d bang on the piano. Like it’s not there yet, but it’s all there.
N: You can see the seeds that will blossom.
BM: It’s just a matter of time ’till everyone starts putting it together, but it’s definitely different than when you or I bang on the piano.
N: Anytime you have to reinterpret a classic story, especially Batman’s debut, I have to imagine there is significant pressure or a sense of history. Were you at all nervous when tackling this?
BM: No, I wasn’t nervous. You just feel like a jackass for even thinking you can do it justice. I mean, that seems like such a silly statement already, you know, like “I’m going to improve on what Bill Finger and Bob Kane did because I think I’m a little bit better than that.” You have no hope if that’s how you approach it. For me, I never approached it as a retelling. Ever. What I wanted to do was honor. That’s the word I had in my head. Let’s honor this history, and that’s why the story exists.
Do we give you twelve-panel pages where Commissioner Gordon’s saying, “Hey, oh my gosh, someone died! Bruce, I know you have no reason to be here at all, but do you want to come to the murder scene?” We changed those little details a bit, but the reality is that I just wanted to honor it. So I just tried to thread seventy-five years of Batman’s motivation through this one story. That’s what the story’s about. I could come up with more clever ways to find out who died and who killed who in the Chemical Syndicate, but we wanted to look at the character and pull out what’s beautiful about this character – and that’s what the story should be about.
N: It’s also interesting to see before the accident. Given where they are in modern day Batman mythology, it’s not really something we see a lot of.
BM: Yeah, and it’s all right there. I was sort of obsessive about it. Stories were told differently back then; we had the twelve-panel pages that looked more like the pages from Watchmen. Instead, we have Brian Hitch. Who am I to tell Brian Hitch not to draw a giant panel spread? Even I want to see that. I wanted to still even keep that wireframe they used seventy-five years ago. One of the things I did was I did a count of all the panels in Detective Comics #27, and when I finished my draft – I swear this is true – I counted my panels of Detective Comics #27 and I counted my panels and it matched perfectly. Seventy-five years later, it’s the exact same panel count. I was like, “Step away from the computer — you’re done.” Of course, Brian Hitch being Brian Hitch, he added a couple panels and ruined my synchronicity, but, still, I just love that we did that. It was really important to me that we tell this story in the same way, because that’s how you honor it.
N: That’s like a comic book writing Ouija board moment — that’s incredible. And I must say the Brian Hitch spread looks incredible. That panel just keeps on going.
BM: My description of it was like, “This is it. This is what you do. This is what everyone’s paying for, including me.” Every dollar I got paid for that issue went right back into Hitch’s pocket, because I bought the art.
N: That’s awesome.
BM: As I was writing the story, I was like, I’m writing this page for you and I am telling you I want to buy it right now, so make it good.
N: No pressure, no pressure.
BM: Because this is really all about me and purchasing art.
N: Why do you think we have this fascination with their roots? Is it about retconning to fit the current mythology or something more?
BM: No, I don’t see it as having a need to retcon. I think that, in life and in art, we have a need to go back to birth. We have a need to be there. You can navel-gaze as much as you want in this moment, but the reality is there’s rarely something more exciting than that birth moment. I guess for some people, it might be that they need to know exactly when the Batmobile was introduced and how Alfred looks in this incarnation, but to me I can read Ma and Pa Kent as 50 year olds, 60 year olds, 70 year olds, 80 year olds — it doesn’t matter. They just have to be there and the ones who teach Superman values. There are things that just have to be there as part of the trope. I think it comes from a much more base need and wanting to understand. You want to be there right for the moment as the thing happens.
One of the things I’m most proud of in the book is when I was writing the issue, I really wanted to get the history right, and it was very important to me that Bill Finger gets what is properly due. We had actually dedicated the story to Bill Finger and, to me, of everything in that story, the thing I’m most proud of is that the credit for the story reads “Bob Kane and Bill Finger” and that’s the single most important panel in the whole book as far as I’m concerned. That’s the right history.
N: Exactly. And it’s one of those things where fans of Batman will see that page and you just feel this sense of pride and fun about the whole thing.
BM: Yeah, that’s why I bought that page too.
N: Having written Batman at multiple stages in his crime fighting career, do you find that you have a preference between writing this earlier, less experienced Batman or do you prefer him when he’s in full-on badass crime fighting mode?
BM: You know what? Batman is actually my favorite character. Anyone who knows anything about me will tell you. From when I’m seven to when I was thirty, you can find pictures of me around the house in Batman gear. I never had another Halloween costume; I was Batman every year. The amazing part is, the very first time I wrote Batman was in Identity Crisis, like, here it is. This is the moment, right? I’m writing Batman. I felt like I’d waited thirty years for this moment, and it’s actually really hard. To me, Batman, more than any other character is the best defined character in all of comics. He’s perfectly, perfectly defined. You know exactly when Batman has done something that is Batman-esque, and you know when he’s done something that isn’t. There’s no argument. You can argue whether he curses or not, but motivation-wise, it’s so clear every time.
As a result, because he’s such an internal character and he’s not running around and talking to everyone, he can be very silent. The hardest part of him is trying to find what he would actually say because, to me, he has such little patience for stupidity and that means he’s smart enough to keep his mouth shut. When I first wrote the scene – I literally waited thirty years to write the scene in Identity Crisis — when they go to examine the murder scene, I was thinking, “Well, of course he’s going to be here. Batman’s going to come in and say this, then he’s going to tell Green Arrow that,” and then I sat down to write it and I’m like what are you, an idiot? Batman was obviously already here hours ago. He was here before anybody was here. He’s not a Super Friend; he’s already gotten everything that needed to be taken out of there. He’s not at the funeral because he hates funerals. That’s why Robin’s in the front row. I realized that I’m writing this character that never appears, and somehow he’s always there. That, to me, is how big his presence is.
N: He definitely looms large over the DC Universe. Do you have a personal favorite Batman story or arc?
BM: I still think it’s Dark Knight Returns and Year One. Those are the easiest, most obvious answers, so let’s put those aside. In terms of the underrated ones, I think the most underrated of all is Marshall Rogers. I love the Neal Adams Batman; I had the little sticker on my door in the ’70s. But I love what Rogers did (with) the little dot-shading he used to do on the capes. I still love that run. It’s funny — who you love when you’re thirteen is who you love forever. I think that’s the underrated one. It does something for me that’s very pure and terrific. And I still love The Killing Joke. I don’t care that Alan Moore doesn’t like it. Art belongs to the people. And I love it even more now that Grant Morrison pointed out to Kevin Smith that Batman kills the Joker in the end. There’s so many good ones, now that you have my brain going.
You can read Brad Meltzer’s homage to “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate” in DC’s Detective Comics #27 this Wednesday, January 8th.
What’s your favorite Batman story? Let us know in the comments below!