Detective Comics #695

Of the hundreds of covers I worked on as an editor, this remains one of my very favorites. Rodolfo Damaggio's brilliantly imagined and executed layout is so damn creepy, and only enhanced by the typically masterful inks of Bill Sienkiewicz, with Gregory Wright's skillfully, tastefully monochromatic colors utterly perfect at somehow ramping the tension up even higher.


It looks great as a collected trade paperback too


but this is one instance where the necessarily intrusive framing element of the unifying crossover theme isn't just good marketing but may actually augment the menacing nature of the illustration.

Detective Comics #726

I've been a fan of Gotham Calling for some time. And this particular installment was a lot of fun because, despite the fact that I worked, in some manner, on almost every book listed, I have very little memory of most of them. And yet just the sight of the covers brought back a rush of pleasure. It was a heady time to be working in comics, and especially on the Batman.

But this one bit especially tickled me:
[I’ll skip Detective Comics #726, which is clearly an inventory story used as a fill-in – it’s a neat standalone tale, but it doesn’t seem to take place in this era of Gotham.]
because, although of course there's absolutely no way he could have known, he also could not have been much more wrong. This was no inventory story—far from it. This was an issue planned long, long in advance. 


Detective Comics #726 was the 700th issue of Detective Comics since the Batman's first ever appearance, way back in Detective Comics #27, cover date May 1939. 


I wanted to do something special to mark the occasion, but I also wanted it to be understated, given the huge crossovers we'd been doing for a few years at that point — Knightfall, Contagion, Legacy, Cataclysm — and the ginormous crossover — No Man's Land — we were about to undertake. So I wanted something worthy of the occasion but something that, at the same time, was in some ways, not all that big a deal. 

So I decided to just do A Very Special Batman sort of issue. First, I decided it would feature the Joker, because of course it would. Chuck Dixon would write it, as he was the book's regular writer and one of the greatest Joker writers in the character's history. And I decided to get the impossibly brilliant Brian Stelfreeze to illustrate it, because he's impossibly brilliant and because it would be the first full-length comic book he'd illustrated in nearly a decade. 

I also decided to play to both those gentlemen's considerable strengths. So the story would go back and forth between two (and ultimately three) different timelines. So on one page, we'd have six-panel-grids of the Batman simply talking to the Joker in his cell in Arkham Asylum, each trying to outwit the other. On the subsequent page, we'd have a full page splash of the Batman in action, facing impossible odds and, of course, ultimately succeeding. No one does clearer, more exciting action than Chuck Dixon or Brian Stelfreeze. And, although it's not what they get called upon to do nearly as much, no one does better incisive, emotionally compelling quiet scenes than Chuck Dixon or Brian Stelfreeze.

We wouldn't worry about continuity—we made sure that if there were no direct allusions to ongoing storylines, there also wouldn't be anything which might contradict current continuity either. Basically, it should be able to fit in just about anywhere in the Batman's history.

I also wanted a story which, if you were unfortunate enough to never read it, well, that sad fact would do absolutely nothing to ever detract from your understanding or enjoyment of any other Batman story. But if you had read it, every subsequent Batman story would be just the teeniest, tiniest bit different for you. Easy-peasy, right?

And since that wasn't quite enough, I decided to force my brilliant and oh so accommodating creative team to jump through one more hoop: the kidnapping victim would be played by my own daughter, Kate, then all of three years old.

And because those guys are those guys they did everything I could ever have hoped for and more. I guess it's not surprising that 20+ years later, it remains one of my favorite things to have ever worked on.

original artwork gifted by Brian Stelfreeze to his young cover model

Superman by Kevin Nowlan

An extensive Google Image search seems to reveal not one single hit for this amazing Superman splash page by Kevin Nowlan. So let's rectify that, shall we?

that's right, that's my handwriting at the top. no, I'm not taking sole credit for the brilliance of
the issue. not in public, at least
That is, of course, from Legends of the DC Universe #6 by the phenomenal creative team of Kelley Puckett, Dave Taylor and Kevin Nowlan, a team which, sadly, despite having absolutely amazing chemistry, did but the one issue.

But what an issue. It was just a single issue in the middle of an anthology series, yet both Chuck Dixon and Ron Marz have listed it amongst the comics they think are some of the greatest ever—and, as usual, those guys are right. Kelley's script was typically incisive in his minimalist way. Dave—one of my favorite comic book artists ever—was at the very top of his absolutely incredible game, and his layouts were utterly clear yet propulsive and inventive, despite being done in something like a week (not his fault: the issue was rushed into the pipeline when some other creative team dropped out belatedly). And, of course, Kevin's inks and colors were...well, they were some of his very finest ever, which is saying something, considering he's one of the very greatest artists in the history of the medium—truly an artist's artist.

Sometimes I can't believe how lucky I am.

Bruce Wayne by Brian Stelfreeze

And sometimes when you're packing for a big move you find yet another Brian Stelfreeze painting and for a little while you forget how tired and dusty and cranky you are.


a master by a master

Sometimes, when one is packing, one discovers one has almost done something horrifying, such as, hypothetically, accidentally putting an original Brian Stelfreeze painting in the Goodwill pile. But then sometimes, thanks to an eagle-eyed good lady wife, one might also discover a forgotten masterpiece, such as a sketch of Dennis O'Neil done by Mark Chiarello at a weekly DC Universe editorial meeting.


click

I've always wished I could draw. It wasn't on my list of Top Three Things at Which I Most Wish I Were Good, at least not until recently, but still: I've always wished I could draw. Not enough to actually, you know, put in the necessary work necessary to actually learn how. But I was a comic book fan—of course I wished I could draw.

But even if I were capable of illustrating my own graphic novel, I'm pretty sure I'd still choose to collaborate, at least some of the time, with others. Because that's one of my favorite things, when an idea starts getting kicked back and forth, and things you would never have thought of on your own suddenly appear and come to life. It was one of my favorite things about being in a band, too, when something would suddenly click and you were all on the same page, knowing what needed to happen next, where the song needed to go.

So I had an idea pop into my head out of the blue today: I decided to think about a character and then moments later another, related, character popped into my head. "Huh," I thought, "wouldn't it be kinda cool if..."

A minute later I had one of my favorite comic book creators on the phone. "Listen," I said. "wouldn't it be cool if..."

He listened, added a few things, we went back and forth for a while, and then the conversation moved on to other stuff. We talked for a bit, then he had to go pick up his kids.

Two minutes later, the phone rang. I was surprised to see his name on Caller ID. "I know how that story ends," he said, and told me the big climactic moment.

*click*

my Batman

If you're lucky enough to get to work on one of the most famous characters ever, you'll get asked occasionally if it's hard to make the character yours.

The answer is that I think every creator has a vision for what constitutes "their Batman." Maybe it's the lighthearted guy who carries Batshark Repellent. Or maybe it's an obsessed vigilante who's only barely able to keep from killing the criminals he's stopping. Maybe it's more on the detective side of the ledger, or maybe more on the superheroic—the urban legend loner or the leader of the Justice League. Maybe even tending towards the supernatural, as some have liked to go, or the more sci-fi take on the gadgets. Or some combination of all of the above.

So my Batman? I've always said it was a cross between Chuck Dixon's and Kelley Puckett's—interestingly, two writers who are fairly dissimilar in their approach to the medium, but whose Batman, perhaps more than any other writers', tends towards the silent. I think I prefer to go in a slightly more literary, less pulpy direction than Chuck, and a more straightforward, less intellectual, metaphorical direction than Kelley.

But then I was rereading, for the first time in many, many years, Batman #431, by the amazing creative team of Jim Owsley and Jim Aparo. A team which only actually did, if I recall correctly, two issues together. The notorious Death of Robin storyline had just wrapped, and its writer—Jim Starlin, and what was with all the Jims back then?—only wrote one more issue after its conclusion before moving on. Jim Owsley stepped in for a pair of issues, then John Byrne wrote a storyarc—which included an amazing almost 100% silent issue—before new regular writer Marv Wolfman took over.

So Jim Owsley—now known as Christopher Priest—and Jim Aparo only got to do two issues together. But what issues they are, especially their first. And rereading it just a few days ago, I realized, oh...this. This is my Batman.

I mean, just check out this sequence. I love everything about it.
How menacing, how tough, does the Batman look in that third panel? When people complain about the yellow oval, I think of how awesome is it when used correctly. 

But wait. It gets better. 
I mean. How badass is that? That second panel is so damn cool. But then that fourth panel is cooler still. He's so smart, so capable, that he can accurately predict what the terrified dude is thinking. Not to mention, how'd he get in and out of solitary like that? He's so cool

But wait. It gets better. 
See? See? See what I mean? His detective skills are a thing of majesty. But that's not all. Not even close. No, after noting things like the state of her teeth and her gait, he then fixes the old lady's sink. 

But that's not all! He's still not done: he goes to the morgue and is able to successfully impersonate a doctor, because of course he's got advanced knowledge of causes of death and their physical signs, and probably really could hack working as a medical examiner no sweat. Which I just thought was the more awesome thing I'd ever seen—and considering I'd seen the previous pages, is saying something.

But wait. It gets better.

The Batman, being the Batman, finds himself at odds with a legendarily deadly group of assassins known as, not coincidentally, The League of Assassins.
They charge. He jumps over them. The moment he lands, he's already whipping a batarang behind him. But not at them—at the lamp. His aim, of course, is perfect, because he's the damn Batman. They're no slouches themselves—they whip shurikens at him. But by the time they find their mark, he's already gone.

Now it's a hunt. Predator and prey. Four against one.

They, of course, are doomed.
The Batman. Takes out a master assassin. Using a frying pan.

And looking absolutely fabulous doing so, may I say. Seriously, that shot of him lifting the pan is one of my favorite Aparo drawings—and considering how much I love Jim Aparo's Batman...

But wait. It gets better.
He knows the others will have been alerted by the sound of a frying pan concussing their fellow assassin, so he's already got it raised, ready to shield him from the shurikens they're going to be sending his way. Then he uses the pan to take out another assassin. Because he's the damn Batman.

We skip a page now, because fair use only goes so far, but the Batman takes out a third assassin, for he is the damn Batman. Meaning it's just the dark knight and one final killer. Our hero discards his cape because he is a matador taunting the bull and because he looks so cool that way.

How great is Aparo's storytelling on this page? The first three panels not only anticipate the widescreen trend of the early Aughts, they're practically Asian in style—as is not inappropriate for the material. Then the three final panels, all in one tier. We are shocked to realize the Batman has been wounded. The assassin laughs. But not, we discover, because he believes he's killed the dark knight, but in admiration, as he realizes that the Batman has instead taken him out, using the most arcane of fighting techniques. Which only a small handful (no pun intended) of people know. One of which, of course, is the Batman. Because of course he does.

Because he's the damn Batman.

So. I read this and I think, yeah...this is the way to do it. This is my vision of Batman. This is my Batman. A guy who knows the deadliest, most recondite of mystic martial arts, but rarely if ever uses them...and still takes the time to fix an old lady's sink. That's how I think the Batman should be. That's my Batman.

Thanks, Jim and Jim.

minimalist storytelling

I've worked on hundreds and hundred of comics, as either writer or editor, but Batman Adventures #20, by the unbeatable creative team of Kelley Puckett, Mike Parobeck and Rick Burchett is the only comic I can remember where not only did the writer note in the script that the penciller and inker owed him a debt of gratitude for the paid day off, but where the letterer actually wrote in the margin on the original board, "I get the art to this page"...and indeed he—the great Richard Starkings—did. And justifiably so.
I don't remember who ballooned this page. I was usually a stickler for doing the ballooning when I was editing, but Richard always felt free to tweak the placements as he saw fit. I have no idea whether he did or not here—although knowing Richard, he probably did—but he surely placed each and every balloon absolutely perfectly, down to the millimeter.

The United States of California

This amazing map from BoingBoing really makes crystal clear just how big California is, population-wise—it's the US, divided into sections with a populations equal to California's. (And I just realized I've lived in four of the eight—not bad.)


Black Panther: a storytelling masterclass

When I heard that Ta-Nehisi Coates—long one of my favorite writers—and Brian Stelfreeze—long one of my favorite artists, not to mention favorite people—were teaming up to work on a Black Panther monthly, I was over the moon excited. These pages show exactly why.



All right. So this is from the fourth issue. By now the readers are already well acquainted with these characters: T'Challa, who's the king of Wakanda—as well as being the Black Panther, of course—and Ramonda, his stepmother, the queen mother. But even if you didn't know any of that, even if these were the only two pages you'd ever read, you'd get much of that from the dialogue, which uses their names and/or titles unobtrusively, clueing you in to their relationship and artfully filling in some previously unknown but important backstory, as well as some of the nuances of their own relationship.

Now look at the elegance of the way each page is composed. The first with its bookends of widescreen panels, while the middle tier is composed of identically sized vertical panels, is a model of balance. The two widescreen panels show essentially the same thing, T'Challa and Ramonda having breakfast. But because the second is significantly panned in, there's nothing monotonous about repeating a similar shot. Similarly, each panel in the middle tier is the same shape and size (save for the round panel borders on the first two, denoting that they're flashbacks, and major damn props for the old school storytelling there), with one character in each the primary focus. But because Brian moves the camera in and out, up and down, each image feels fresh. Adding to all this, of course, is absolutely stellar color work by the magnificent Laura Martin, who not only renders the very first panel as though Maxfield Parrish were painting a Wakandan cityscape, but adds to the clarity of the flashbacks by going monochromatic, but using a different palette for each, to denote different times in the past.

The second page, by contrast, is just as elegantly laid out, but Brian chooses an alternate approach: again, three tiers, but this time only the middle tier is widescreen, while the first has three equal sized panels and the bottom two. Again, a perfectly balanced page, but with enough variety to keep the eye fully engaged—and note, too, how often on this second page we're treated to subtle downshots: literal bird's eye views of this high high above the city's streets scene.

But here's the thing. Check out the way Brian reveals how T'Challa is feeling during this conversation. It starts with him sitting at the table, but as the talk progresses, he moves further and further away from his stepmother—except that they're on a balcony, so there's only so far away he can move. But he gets every bit as far away as possible, until by the final panel, his heels seem to literally be hanging over the edge.

Now, if he were any other character, you'd infer from this that the guy was suicidal, or at least reckless, or perhaps drunk or even just plain stupid. But T'Challa is precisely none of those things: he's the Black Panther, which means he's in complete command of his body. He knows exactly where he is and what's perfectly safe for him to do, even if it wouldn't be for just about any other human. He knows he's not going to fall, but if he were to, he wouldn't be killed on account of his suit—although, even then, things probably wouldn't get to that point, as he'd be able to arrest his fall, most likely, because, again, he's the Black damn Panther, and that's how badass he is.

Or how badass he can be. He's only this badass in this exact situation because of the choice his badass artist made to show, in one small understated panel, this subtle, incisive bit of characterization.

Brian Stelfreeze: The Flash!

So I've been asked to write a piece about Brian Stelfreeze, which is convenient, since it's one of my favorite things to do anyway. I start writing about a poster of The Flash Brian painted back in the 90s but for once my normally outstanding google-fu is failing me; according to the internet, Brian did no such thing. But I'm sure he did—it was hanging up all over the DC Comics offices. And yet.

Naturally, I write Brian and ask him if I'm losing my mind. He draws one fewer Black Panther panels that day, instead sending me a copy of the mythical painting in question. It looks even better than I'd remembered, and I'd loved it at the time.

So it's official. I haven't completely lost my mind, not yet. And here, internet—this is for you: Brian Stelfreeze's painted Flash poster. You're welcome.



Batman: Dark Tomorow podcast

So here's a thing I did—an interview about the infamous Batman: Dark Tomorrow videogame I wrote once upon a time. Chris Clow, the gent who interviewed me, did a great job and, apparently, is the person who actually bought the game despite having already played some of it. Now there's dedication!

Check out the interview here—but be prepared, it's not brief. What can I say? Who doesn't love to talk about their greatest flop? Besides...I'm actually really still quite fond of the damn thing. Sure, it was a disaster, but I had fun doing it, and some of the cinematics are still pretty groovy. And I'm a sucker for The Noble Failure™, even when it's mine.