Scott Snyder on Batman, ‘Rotworld’ and American Vampire’s hiatus
Scott Snyder was already one of DC Comics/Vertigo’s rising stars when he began writing Detective Comics two years ago. In fall 2011, as part of DC’s New 52, Snyder moved over to the main Batman title and began writing Swamp Thing as well. His Batman work has helped put the title on a number of best-of-2012 lists, Swamp Thing is in the midst of the “Rotworld” crossover, and his collaboration with Jim Lee on a new Superman title will begin in 2013. American Vampire is going on hiatus for most of the year, but that will help him and artist Sean Murphy debut The Wake. I spoke with Snyder on Dec. 13, just after Batman #15 was published.
Thanks to Scott for his time, and to DC’s Alex Segura and Pamela Mullin for making the interview possible.
Tom Bondurant: I don’t know about the preliminaries [but] I will say that one phrase that kept coming to mind when I was thinking about interviewing you was that line from Ghostbusters: “How is Elvis, and have you seen him lately?”
Scott Snyder: [laughs] Thanks! Well, I’m a huge Elvis fan, so that really starts the day off right, hearing that.
Well, I’m calling you from Memphis –
– so I’ve seen the [Graceland] trophy case [in Elvis’ memorabilia room]. I haven’t seen the plane or anything, but I was like, I’m talking to the writer of Batman, and I’m living in a town where there’s a big house on a hill, with planes and cars and trophy cases full of costumes [Snyder laughs], and it’s just very surreal.
Yeah, it’s definitely — if anyone could have been Batman, it could’ve been Elvis. It would have been fun.
[Mullin adds that Elvis also wore a cape.]
Yeah, well, his favorite superhero was Captain Marvel, though. The lightning bolt from the TCB symbol he used — it was inspired by the costume of Captain Marvel/Shazam.
Taking care of business in a flash.
Yeah, there’s the Flash!
[And with that out of the way....]
… [The] first thing that struck me [about Batman #15] was your use of first-person narration. It seems like you’re really getting into Batman’s head, especially on the first and last pages [of the issue]. And my question about that is, [do] you feel like you are getting into Batman’s head when you write the character, or do you have more of a sense of, “I know Batman already; this is how he should talk?”
No, I mean, I try really hard to think how he would be thinking at that moment, and to use it as a way [of] exploring for myself what he’s going through. I mean, I would say that, before I begin any big story like the Joker story, I have a pretty strong sense of what [Batman’s] sort of trajectory is going to be emotionally through it. So for example, the Joker story really is about him fighting his own impulses to not let his friends in, and to protect them from a threat like the Joker. And the sort of good and bad elements of that. So I know that’s kind of the major theme and I know how that’s going to play out.
So I know there are going to be beats in every issue that sort of get deeper and deeper into that conflict, I think, in him — what’s the right thing to do, how do you handle it when you want to protect your family; and at the same time, by not telling them what you need to tell them, you’re also making them somehow vulnerable. And heightening those beats every issue. But when it comes to an actual monologue, or a sort of section of narration I know I want to be there to … to provide that kind of emotional note or grounding at the beginning of an issue, I try to just explore a little bit. So that’s kind of where I get to have a bit of fun and try to figure out what Bruce is really thinking at that moment, given where he is in the story. So I don’t go into it thinking to myself, “This is how I would think of the Joker and so let me put that on Bruce.” I try and think: where is Bruce in the story, what is he suffering from, what is he worried about; and then to create something that … organically gives you some sense of that … as a reader, but hopefully also pushes the story forward a bit.
Well, like I say, it did strike me as an unusual — well, I won’t say unusual, but … we’re used to first-person narration these days being, like, “in the moment,” and I really liked how you had Batman telling a story throughout the entire issue, not just on the first and last pages, but to the rest of the “family” in the Batcave … and I liked how you described it just now as him fighting his impulses, because I think that really comes through in those Batcave scenes.
When I wrote about Batman #13 a couple months ago, I was comparing it — my first thought was to compare it to “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge” –
I love that story!
They both start with the Joker just coming into town like a force of nature, in the rain and everything. I think you’d said there would be other references to other Joker stories throughout this particular one. I take it the reservoir [flashback in issue #15] is from [Ed Brubaker and Doug Mahnke’s] The Man Who Laughs?
Yeah, that’s right! There are going to be references to [the 1988 arc] “Death in the Family” coming up, and Jokerfish, and all kinds of [references] to a lot of my personal favorite Joker stories in the past, and hints of things coming also with Joker. So we wanted [it] to be a story that really is Joker sort of celebrating his own history of twisted … his own history and twisted relationship with Batman, by kind of providing him examples or reminding him in some ways — almost in this kind of love letter way — of all the great twisted times that they’ve had together, according to Joker. So there will be references to all of that, ‘cause the story really is a bit of a celebration of their relationship as much as it sort of also is going for the jugular for him.
When you write a story like this, and kind of like with the Court of Owls — [which was] this force that’s been building up in Gotham over hundreds of years, and [Batman cripples them] — you can kind of look at that as … you put a period on the Court of Owls at the end of that story. Do you think of this Joker story as the last Joker story anyone will ever need, or the big one you want to write, or do you think of it as setting up future ones, like you talked about?
Well, I honestly — the way I try to approach writing any of these characters, whether it’s Bruce or Superman or Alec Holland or Joker, is to try and tell the story I would tell if I only got one chance ever to write them. So I think they’re all kind of designed to be the last ever for me! But then luckily, I mean that’s the way the Court of Owls was sort of set up for me…. [I]t was built around the assumption that maybe I would get kicked off at the end [Bondurant laughs], like [if] people didn’t like it, or if, you know, if it sort of went the wrong way.
You know, you try to make every story the one you’d tell if you only got one chance, and to me, that’s sort of one of the real compasses of comic writing. One of the golden rules when I teach comic writing [is] that you’re only allowed to bring the comic into class that you’re writing, that you would want to pick up on the shelf and see. It doesn’t have to be the smartest, it doesn’t have to be, you know, political, it can be anything you want to be. It can be funny, it can be incredibly gruesome, whatever it is, it just has to be the one that you would pick up above any other one. And for me, that’s sort of the North Star of writing these characters, you know, in terms of trying to keep myself honest. That’s why I love teaching, is ‘cause I go in there and say that to them, and then I feel like I have to come home and do the same thing….
With Joker, with Batman, I try to approach every story like that, like this is the Joker story I would want to read if I only picked up one today. It doesn’t have to be the best, but it has to be the one I would like the most, and in that way it is designed to be sort of, if I never get to write the Joker ever again, um, this is it. [T]he irony of it is that half the time writing the story, I start thinking of ideas for the next time the characters meet, and then I’m like, actually, it’s not the last one! [laughs]
So that’s what happened with Bruce. I worried I only had one big Bruce story in me — you know, this big Court of Owls story — and then the second I started writing [Bruce] I remembered and started thinking of all these other stories that I really wanted to do. But if you don’t approach every story like that, like it’s your one shot, and you don’t try and stay hungry with it, then I feel like you’re going to wind up disappointing yourself and disappointing fans.
That leads me into a question about Swamp Thing [and] “Rotworld,” and telling the story you really want to tell with Swamp Thing. The way “Rotworld” is playing out, with Swamp Thing and Animal Man and Frankenstein traveling across this post-apocalyptic landscape, where they encounter various DC characters — is that a story — I suspect it would have been very different if you’d told it at Vertigo under the old rules, say — is that a story you always wanted to tell with Swamp Thing, or — how did that kinda come about?
Yeah — it wasn’t something that I had planned from the beginning. I mean, the same way, I really had this one big story in mind about [Alec Holland] sort of accepting the mantle of Swamp Thing and facing off against Arcane eventually, and that’s sort of what we proceeded to tell with the first big arc, and then we had sort of another arc planned that wasn’t “Rotworld,” but had a lot of the same sort of emotional conflict between him and Arcane and Abby.
And I was having such a great time working on the book, with Jeff Lemire working on Animal Man, and trading scripts and talking back and forth that … we really had the same mythology, so why don’t we try and do something where the books actually intertwine? We get a chance to hang out more [laughs] and joke around more and talk more and do more writing together. So “Rotworld” sort of came out of that idea, of how we would create an environment where both characters would have enough room to play alone, but would be a story that was really shared. So that’s how it really came about. We both are huge fans of dystopian alternate universe stories. Everything from Red Son and Old Man Logan [to] Dark Knight Returns I just adore. I adore those kinds of takes where you’re sort of put into a dystopian alternate universe. So this was one that came about really through my friendship with Jeff and it’s been a tremendous blast to write.
The other thing that gets me about “Rotworld” is, [it] could easily be one of these summer-long, go-into-every-title big crossover events, and I like how it’s all distilled into two or three books.
Thanks! Yeah, we really wanted to keep it private.
Yeah, it’s kind of funny to think about it like that, like Swamp Thing’s headlining Crisis On Infinite Earths or something. [Snyder laughs] Something big like that.
Yeah, we wanted to keep it pretty particular to our books.
Another thing I wanted to ask you about: are you familiar with the How to Be a Retronaut website?
Well, it collects all these vintage photos, and old ad campaigns, and things like that, and there was one picture on there a couple weeks ago, called “Miss American Vampire 1970.”
Oh, really? [laughs]
Yeah, and it was just some sort of beauty pageant, where this Elvira-like woman was getting the sash and the crown from Jonathan Frid, from Dark Shadows.
Nice! Yeah, oh my God!
Yeah, I was, like, “I wonder if Scott Snyder’s seen this …”
No, I haven’t! I’ll check it out.
Well … you can look for the biggest and best stuff so far in the series. For us it really was begun with this kind of two-part structure in mind, where there’d be sort of the first half of the 20th century, sort of opening the mythology up and revealing things about different species and different sort of histories the vampires have with each other and humans, [and] the history of the Vassals of the Morning Star, the human organization that hunts vampires in our mythology. And then the second half would be about bringing all of those characters, all of those … different species of vampires and all of those histories to bear against one another in some way in kind of a big final conflict.
And so we always knew there’d be a midpoint to the series right about now, in the ‘50s, the 1950s, and as we got closer and closer, [series artist] Rafael [Albuquerque] was saying he’d really like to draw more of [these] second-cycle stories, as we build up to the end of the series. So don’t get me wrong, we still have about three years of story left when we come back. But the idea was that he wanted to do less fill-ins and wanted to have more that he could be a part of, and in that way it really made sense for us to take a bit of a hiatus so he could get ahead. So even though to the reading world we’ll be off for about a year, just under a year, for us we’re only taking a couple months off. And the story we’re coming back with is already designed to — he’s already beginning to work on it.
So it made a lot of sense for us, and it gives me a bit of room also to launch The Wake — you know, the series I’m doing at Vertigo with Sean Murphy which I’m really excited about. It’s a deep-ocean sci-fi horror series [coming out] in 2013. [The break will] give me a bit more breathing room with Superman with Jim Lee, and with Batman too. So that was the only reason we did it, and we just want to make it really clear to fans how deeply we appreciate their support, and how overwhelmed we were with sort of the response both to the latest story we’ve been doing and to the idea we were taking a hiatus. [Fans] were disappointed that we were going, but we were really honestly overwhelmed and moved to see how excited they were to hear we had a very definite return date, and a very definite return story, and that you know it’s not something that’s in any way unplanned or in any way unstructured. It’s a very very tight break for us, but we’ll be back really soon with the craziest stuff yet.
Remind me again of when you’re coming back — it’s going to be next fall, or …?
[Here Mullin mentioned that DC hasn’t actually announced the return date yet.]
The hiatus reminds me of the hiatuses that Mad Men takes, and every time they jump forward a few months, or a year, or something, it’s always a big spoiler alert about how far ahead they’re jumping. If I had to guess, I’d say you’d be getting into the 1960s with the second half [SS laughs], but …
I don’t want to give it away, but there’s definitely a time jump! We want it just to feel like there’s a break, and when we do come back again…. I will say that [December’s] Issue 34 has clues in one spread — and you’ll know which one it is when you see it — for basically every storyline coming. Not just [immediately] after the break, but to the very end of the series. So there’s hints of everything coming, in the next issue, if you’ll pick it up, Issue 34.
I have one question about Superman: basically, we’ve all seen the Man of Steel trailer by this point, [so] how does that compare to what you guys have planned?
[laughs] Well, I don’t know! The trailer is so intriguing and exciting, you know, but I also, I don’t know. I can’t tell from it what a lot of the major beats are, thankfully. I wouldn’t want to know ahead of time. So I can say that [...] we’re going to be introducing a new villain, and we’re going to be trying to do the biggest and most epic Superman story we can! So you’ll see the supporting cast — you’ll see Lana, and Lois, and Lex, and Jimmy and Perry. The story itself is really going to put Superman against a threat that will kind of shake him to his core psychologically and emotionally. We’re really really proud of it and Jim is doing incredible work on it. So we can’t wait for you guys to see it!