What It’s Like to Reinvent Batman
How two best friends landed their dream job.
Jackson Lanzing and Collin Kelly didn’t plan on writing comic books. The two writers met at USC and quickly became screenwriting partners and close friends, penning everything from samurai vs demon tales to an adaptation of Marlow, an adaptation of a zombie book based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but none of their silver screen projects ever saw the light of day.
After collaborating with actress Alyssa Milano on the acclaimed techno-thriller Hacktivist, Lanzing and Kelly were recruited by DC Comics’ Rebecca Taylor and Chris Conroy to work with writer James Tynion and a talented team of writers on Batman and Robin Eternal, an ambitious news series exploring Bruce Wayne’s evolution into the Dark Knight through two separate storylines. Not only would the two get to write Batman, a character they’d both grown up on, but they’d get to reimagine his origin and backstory in ways never before attempted in the character’s eight decades. If was, as Kelly put it, the “job offer of a lifetime.”
Maxim spoke to Lanzing and Kelly about what it’s like to reimagine a legendary superhero like Batman, the creative process, and what’s in store for Batman and Robin Eternal.
What was it like to get that call? I’m assuming you celebrated.
Collin: Well, we couldn’t tell anyone at our day jobs, so we sort of just sat there in a daze and then snuck out to call each other. We screamed and screamed and screamed.
Jackson: How did we celebrate? I think we went and drank some very, very fine scotch.
But we also had a bit of a private panic attack, as you do when you’re being a minor league player and then being asked to play for the the Yankees. You end up asking yourself, “Am i up to this? Do I have something to offer this legacy?” For half a second we sat there and asked ourselves, “Oh my God, what even is Batman anyway?”
It’s interesting you say that, because it seems that’s the core question at the heart of Batman and Robin Eternal. My understanding is that the book is set in two different periods: the modern day, where Bruce Wayne is missing and Dick Grayson leads a team in Gotham, and the past, where Bruce and Dick are Batman and Robin. How did this this come about?
Collin: The concept of the dual storylines came entirely from James [Tynion]. That was the hook walking in…
Jackson: And Scott [Snyder], who writes the main Batman book.
They came up with this concept that immediately made us feel excited as writers, and not just that it progresses the “Bat Family” of ex-Robins and the like, but because we really get to reimagine classic stories.
If you recall, the New 52 revamp and relaunch of all of DC’s characters and comics back in 2011 introduced us to a world where everyone’s only been in capes and cowls for about five years. In the reboot of a decades-old continuity, that’s a huge gape of time where things go unexplored. We get to dive into that pocket of untold story, that time when Bruce Wayne is actually becoming Batman.
Here’s an example: We get to tackle the first appearance of the Scarecrow. We get to tell stories about who he was before he became a villain. We also get to introduce Mother, an absolute arch-villain to bring weight and menace and dread who’s been part of of Batman’s life the entire time.
Jackson: We’ve got a really solid dynamic outline from Scott and James. It’s a globetrotting story told in two-issue chunks. Collin and I are writing #9 and #10, and then coming back and doing #15 and #16. The interesting thing about building these micronarratives is what that does to you as a writer; all start to pitch ideas for each other issues in a way that feels like a television writers room, all these people working on this book will throw out brilliant ideas that aren’t in the original story document.
In our case, these story opportunities come down to two characters, who are our favorites from growing up but also were kinda forgotten by the story: Jason Todd, the “dead” Robin who the Joker killed, and Tim Drake, the “main” Robin who showed up on Bruce Wayne’s doorstep and was like, “I know you’re Batman.”
Colin: We love broken young men and tales of friendship. It’s something we care about a lot and it comes from our natural dynamic.
It’s important to note that in Marvel and DC, there’s a reputation of putting the brakes on original or unorthodox ideas. We’ve encountered none of that.
Batman is one of the oldest characters in modern comics. Are there part stories or tropes that inspired you? How about other media, like Nolan’s origin story Batman Begins? For some reason, I keep thinking of when Batman had a gun back in the 1940s, too…
Jackson: Issue #1 of Batman and Robin Eternal ends with a scene that he uses a gun for something really dark and really brutal. It adds a level of mystery to his motivations. The series, in a way, is an exploration of whether or not Bruce has totally lost himself into the Batman persona and mission, and to what extent robin is the counterpoint to that, a guy who’s there to make sure Bruce Wayne isn’t just Batman all the time.
Scott Snyder did something very different from previous Batman writers: He makes Bruce Wayne a person, not a mask for Batman, like Batman is just playing Bruce when he’s forced to go out during the day. Bruce Wayne is Batman, but he’s still Bruce Wayne. He’s a haunted, angry, troubled guy, and ultimately as you get deeper and deeper into his mission, he’s really trying to learn how to revive his humanity. Robin does it; Commissioner Gordon is part of that. Alfred is key to that. In the current run, when he doesn’t remembers he’s Batman or his parents dying (in a traumatic sense), we’re exploring the idea that Batman isn’t inevitable in Bruce.
Collin: As for inspiration, everyone has their favorite Batman stories, but I always come back to Dark Victory, which is such a fantastic of introduction of Robin to the world on the back of Long Halloween. Batman isn’t about punching and violence, he’s about unraveling mysteries — at his core he’s a great detective trying to make things better for the people of Gotham.
Jackson: The first defining Batman book I read as a kid was the novelization of Knightfall, where Bane fucks up his world and breaks his back before taking over Gotham [Ed: also the inspiration for The Dark Knight Rises] . That book is such a defining look at what it must be like to live in a world with Batman — he inspired greatness and a whole lot of darkness, people like Bane who feel like revolutionary leaders but are actually strongmen.
There are no two characters in the current DCU who best capture this than Red Hood (Jason Todd), fundamentally inspired by Batman but driven by own tragedy and not afraid of guns, and Red Robin (Tim Drake), who is inspired to become the world’s greatest detective by driving himself away from other people just like Bruce. Our run on Eternal is all about putting those two characters together and using them to tell the story of how Batman inspires people.
Speaking of Bane, I read a recent Neatorama interview a few weeks back where you talked about rethinking legendary Batman baddie Bane. I recently rewatched Batman and Robin…
Jackson: Bane is not an idiot. The movie Batman and Robin did a disservice this character. He is a self made man and a genius, a brilliant tactician. Look, in Knightfall, Bane rolls up, frees every villain, makes Batman runs a gauntlet against all of them, then corners an exhausted Batman and just destroys him — and Batman’s never even met Bane before. This all happens over about 12 issues. He’s a tactical master.
Collin: He totally takes him apart with strength and intelligence. In the current continuity, he led a rebellion in Gotham. He led people in trying to take down Batman and take over Gotham and got his butt handed to him. So now, we have this character who is a certifiable tactical genius, one of the greatest fighters on the planet, and he’s got blood on his hands. He isn’t arrogant, powerful Bane, but he’s returned to homeland to lick his wound and think about what it means to be Bane. He’s loud and boisterous and covered in muscles, but more introverted; he’s not leading a paramilitary group and he’s more of a Che Guevara type in this small island nation.
Jackson: We have a lot of interest in redefining the character a bit. We’re not changing his costume or his powers. We’re looking for a way to evolve his motivation, to give him a place in this universe where he’s not just a big strong guy, because there are a lot of big strong guys. He’s basically from DC’s Cuba, and not just a brawler who rolls in to punch people.
Our book is mostly punching
Collin: It’s punching with a lot of feeling
Jackson: We’re idea driven guys, we love character and idea complimenting each other. What you’ll see with issue #9 is us throwing a lot of interesting ideas into the mix while there’s a lot of punching. We never got to really do that in Hacktivist; there’s just nobody’s punching each other into the sky.
Tell me about Mother.
Jackson: As James Tynion is fond of saying, there are a lot of villains throughout the DC universe who are mirrors of Thomas Wayne. A lot of them are doctors, or have a medical background…
Collin: Batman’s relationships with his Robins are very paternal.
Jackson: Exactly. But there is no character who actually mirrors Martha Wayne, Batman’s mother, and what she meant to Bruce. James was very interested in creating a character that finally challenged that relationship with Robin by presenting a more maternal version
As for who she is, well, she’s awful. She’s basically a human trafficker who can make you whatever you need. She creates designer people. And she’s the real threat of Batman and Robin Eternal: sometime in the past, he tried to take her down, tried to solve this mystery, and maybe came away more morally compromised than any other time or than anyone would have imagined. Now, with Bruce unable to remember all of this, the Robins are banding together to figure out what he did when he was keeping things from them. They’re tracking the world’s greatest detective through his origin story as Batman.
Collin: This is the first work we’ve done with DC, and we get to write a scene between Bruce Wayne and Mother, a scene that’s never been written in the DC universe before not because she didn’t exist, but because he’s never been faced with this set of problems and emotional ramifications. That they have enough faith in us to execute that is so humbling and so awesome.
What’s ahead forBatman and Robin Eternal?
Jackson: This week’s issue is the first one where we’re out of Gotham; it’s a globetrotting adventure story from here on out. Were going to to be getting into some shit. We’ve been setting things up for the past few issues, and now we’re really getting to play with the pieces.
Issues 9, 10, 15, and 16 are basically all sideplot opuses with Tim and Jason while everyone else is out and about. They’re on their own investigation, and that thread is going to reintroduce some interesting stuff to the DC universe. They’re basically like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
Collin: For fans of Batgirl Cassandra Cain, we’re bringing her back into the universe and doing some really exciting things with her. If there’s a Batgirl-sized hole in your heart, you’ll be happy. She isn’t the the only cameos that we’re bringing in. For fans who maybe have been waiting for some of their favorite characters to return to the New 52, then you should read Batman and Robin Eternal.
Jackson: Honestly, it’s been an honor to get to to this at all. It still feels a little bit like we’re trying to wake up from a dream. These are characters we love and grew up with and we know fans have very strong opinions about this. If fans ever want to reach out to us on twitter and get into it with us,please do; we’re always trying to talk to fans.
Look, we’re lifelong DC readers and DC fans, and the chance to play with these characters is absolutely insane. If we never touched superhero comics ever again, we would could honestly say we’ve done a job we were incredibly proud. It’s been quite a ride and we really hope people enjoy the whole effort — and that they stick around. We’re just getting started.