Ed Brubaker Looks Back On Batman, Part Two: Gotham Central And The Man Who Laughs
With long runs on hit titles like Captain America, Daredevil, Sleeper, Fatale, Criminal and more, writer Ed Brubaker has cemented his position as one of the most prominent writers in American comics, and he got his start with superheroes with Batman. After being brought in from the world of crime comics to write the Batman comics in 2000, Brubaker rose to prominence with his work on Gotham City's heroes, including cowriting the seminal Gotham Central, relaunching Catwoman with a critically acclaimed and influential new direction, and retelling the first encounter between Batman and the Joker.
This week, ComicsAlliance is taking a look back at Brubaker's tenure on the Dark Knight with an in-depth interview, and today, we continue our discussion of his work on Detective Comics and focus on two of his most well-known projects: Batman: The Man Who Laughs and Gotham Central.
CLICK HERE if you missed part one!
ComicsAlliance: The "Dead Reckoning" storyline always felt to me like it was a response to Hush, a murder mystery with the same big cast of villains.
Ed Brubaker: I'd seen the first issue of Hush. It was going to be a big special event I think, before it took over Batman, so I knew what I was up against. I was really trying to bring as much of an A-Game, and I thought "Well, I'm going to do the dark detective Batman, then." I'm following Greg Rucka, who's been doing all this stuff with Sasha Bordeaux, so I thought "I'll do a supervillain murder mystery, where somebody's coming back and they're killing a bunch of supervillains off," that sort of mystery.
Because they always talk about how Batman's a great detective, but you don't really need to be a great detective in Gotham City, because everyone just commits a crime in broad daylight and advertises it. "I guess the Riddler did it, there's all these riddles here!" Or "I guess the Joker did it, everyone's smiling and their faces are white!" You know? [Laughs] I wanted to tell an actual mystery story - an actual whodunnit - for a change.
CA: After that, there was "Made of Wood," which was the Golden Age Green Lantern team-up.
EB: Yeah, and half of that story is told from Jim Gordon's point of view, too. That was the only time I got to really write Jim Gordon, either, except for the Joker one-shot.
CA: Right, because he's not in Gotham Central.
EB: He retired. I was told first thing, right out the gate, "you can't use Joker or Jim Gordon," which are two of the best characters, so I was like "Well this is going to be fun." So when I got Detective, I thought "Well, Gordon's still around! What's he doing in retirement? Let's have him get involved in a mystery!" Then I stumbled across the fact that Golden Age Green Lantern was also from Gotham City, which I hadn't known before, and I thought "Well, there's got to be a way to get him back in there and have him do a Marvel Team-Up with Batman."
CA: At DC, it's called a "Brave and the Bold," Ed.
EB: Yeah, I know. [Laughs] Made of Wood is very much another one that bleeds into Gotham Central in a big way. The idea of doing a story about the repercussions of one thing that happened a long time ago, an exploding baseball that destroys this guy's life because he just happens to be standing there while these gods are fighting above them, and following the ripples, what that would do to your children and grandchildren. The idea that your lives were ruined by some supervillain and superhero fight, and that you could be obsessed by it for generations.
CA: So then we have what I'd guess is your most prominent work on Batman as a character, which is The Man Who Laughs. It certainly sold a lot of copies in 2008. [Laughs]
EB: I was glad I reminded them to put that back into print when The Dark Knight came out, because that was the final prestige project book, and it was out of print the day that it shipped from the printer. They printed the exact number that they had orders for, and by a couple months after it came out, they were selling for $85 on eBay and Amazon, and I was like "Oh God! I only have three copies!" [Laughs]
I had written that about four years before it came out, actually. I originally wrote it for Steve Dillon but it kept getting back burnered on his schedule for one reason or another. So around three years after I turned it in, Mike said "I think Steve's never going to draw it, we need to get another artist," and we got Doug Mahnke, who did a fantastic job on it.
CA: For people who haven't read it, which I imagine is a pretty small number, it's a retelling of the first Joker story from Batman #1, which was also retold as "The Laughing Fish" in the '70s.
EB: Yeah, sort of, but it's more complicated than that. I took elements from the first Joker story, the one where he was announcing on the radio when he'll kill people, but it also sort of starts right after the end of Year One. I was trying to create a bridge between Year One and The Killing Joke. Obviously, everyone who does a Batman one-shot wants it to be thought of as well as The Killing Joke or Batman: Year One, but you know, you aspire to be as good as the stuff that really inspired you, when you're doing these characters. So that was the idea. Year One ends with Gordon waiting on the roof for Batman because there's a guy threatening to poison the water supply, "Some guy calling himself the Joker," or something like that. It's hinted at at the end of Year One, so I was just like "What's that story?" And then our story ends with the first time the Bat-Signal gets turned on.
That was my thing, "What's the first time in canon that Batman and the Joker have ever met?" Because it hadn't really been shown at that point, for a long time. It was a lot of fun, though. That opening scene was something I'm really proud of.
Gordon walking through that warehouse with all these dead homeless people with their faces all twisted out of shape. Because I thought "you have to test Joker toxin." There's gotta be test subjects out there that ended up frowning instead of smiling, or ended up with their faces just pulling rictus and ripping their flesh off. When I thought of that, I was like "Okay, I've got my in here."
CA: Was that idea, doing the Joker/Batman origin story, a reaction to being told that you couldn't use the Joker in the main book?
EB: I don't think so, it was more done because, at the time, it was going to be Steve Dillon, who I don't think had ever drawn Batman, and was a really big name in comics just a few years after Preacher. The idea was to do something that would be a big deal, and I thought "Well, we'll just tell the first time Batman and the Joker ever met." I think the reason I got so into it was because I'd never actually been able to write the Joker. I wrote it before we were doing Gotham Central, certainly before we did the Soft Targets Joker storyline there, which I hear is a lot of people's favorite Joker story.
CA: It's mine.
CA: So let's talk about Gotham Central. Obviously there's a lot of really good stuff in there, and when I talked to Greg, we broke down who wrote who.
EB: Yeah, initially, we came up with the shifts, because it gave us a way to write a comic together without stepping on each others toes all the time. The idea was that we'd team up, then we'd each do a story, then we'd team up again so that we could stay out of each other's way and not mess up each other's characters or have to run everything by the other person constantly. We had done enough of these tie-in things to know how much interaction we actually like to have when we're working on something as a writer. And then we also created a bunch of new characters, which hadn't been done for a while in Gotham.
CA: What was your first big Gotham Central story?
EB: Initially, our first issue was a double-sized issue. The first two issues were written as a single 48-page special, and it was going to be a double-sized #1. Then it turned out that no one had ever gotten the higher ups to sign off on it, so we had to go back in and change it, and add a new ending to #1 and a new opening to #2, and do it that way. That's why those two issues were double-shipped, I think. That was going to be one issue, and then I did the storyline after that, which ended up being issues #3 through #6. That was the one about the aftermath, with Marcus Driver teaming up with Romy Chandler to solve the case he and his partner had been working on when his partner died, which was a missing girl. That was the end of the second issue, after Batman had gotten Mr. Freeze for them, and Marcus basically told him to f*ck off, they get the radio call that the girl had been found dead. So I did what happens next, and it was very procedural, but I had a ton of fun with it, doing a Law & Order-esque take on Gotham City.
It was such a small idea -- some random babysitter gets killed in Gotham, and it uncovers this twisted supervillain plot. The plot was really just an excuse to follow Marcus's mental state after watching his partner get broken into a million pieces by Mr. Freeze.
CA: Where did that idea come from? The Mr Freeze opening?
EB: That scene, that opening scene, was what we pitched to [editor] Bob Schreck. Greg and I were out at a lunch at San Diego [Comic-Con] when we decided we were really going to push hard to be able to do Gotham Central, and we were sitting there, and we just improvised that scene to Bob, talking about these two guys knocking on a door, and it's just the wrong door. You open it and Mr. Freeze is there, and he freezes your partner while you're frozen to the floor and busts him into a million pieces while you're frozen there, just to show you what it's like being in Gotham City, and Bob basically approved the book right then.
They had been pushing us to team up and relaunch Batman and the Outsiders, and we had talked about it once on the phone for about 15 minutes, and we both decided we'd rather just push hard to do the cop comic, which we didn't have a name for at the time. Greg did "Half a Life" after that, which, right after it came out, got nominated for every award in comics, and they won and never let me live it down that I didn't win. Michael Lark used to send me pictures of the Eisner award when I would give him guff on Daredevil. [Laughs]
CA: And then came "Soft Targets" which is... the best. It's just the best story.
EB: It has one of the best Joker scenes of all time, I think, Joker in the interrogation room, which strangely had never been done before. Greg and I split that workload up so strangely. We'd plot those out over the phone, and Greg would be typing up scene-by-scene bullet points, and then we'd figure out what took place on what pages and who got what pages. Then Greg would send the outline over the second we were off the phone, and in the early days, whoever finished their half of the issue last had to deal with the transitions, so you would just race to be the first one done, and I was always the last one done.
So on this story, I had written the scene where Probson goes in and attacks Joker, and Greg wrote the scene where he escapes, which had me in f*cking tears of laughter when I got the script back. Just "Hey, call the cops!" [Laughs] It's one of the funniest lines of all time as he comes out to shooting! "Call the cops!" It's so matter-of-fact, and when you see it on the page, the way Michael drew it, it's just this is who he is. Giving Joker a line from an old Bugs Bunny cartoon when Probson captures him at the end of the previous issue, there was just so much fun in that storyline. That and the Bullock storyline. I'm so happy with everything we did in there, overall. I loved being able to write the issue from the point of view of Stacy, the girl who turns on the Bat-Signal.
CA: That's such a good issue.
EB: Any time I get a chance to sneak a romance comic into whatever I'm working on, I'll do it.
Soft Targets, by the way, I don't think there has ever been a correct printing of it. In the actual issues, in part two, they left the overlay of all the snow in the entire issue, and then when they reprinted it in the trade, they put the snow back in but left out a page of lettering or something. It's never been printed properly. Even the newer editions of Gotham Central, part two doesn't have the snow layer that Michael did. It frustrates the hell out of me, because I wrote the scene where Marcus holds his hand out because the snow's falling, and he's like "the snow's really starting to come down" and there's nothing there! [Laughs] It's a technical glitch.
CA: Well maybe they'll fix it on the next one now that you've pointed it out.
EB: That would be nice. And look, I don't mean to sound like I have grievances, because DC was actually great with us on Gotham Central overall. Everyone at DC loved it. [Then-Executive Editor] Dan DiDio loved it and told us they'd never cancel the book no matter what it was selling, and [VP Sales] Bob Wayne, before the first issue came out, when it was just being looked at internally with the black-and-whites, called me and told me it was his favorite DC comic in ten years.
So initially, we thought we were going to get this huge PR push, cover of Previews [the Diamond Distributors catalogue for retailers] and all this stuff, and then we were told that we weren't getting the Previews cover because they needed to give it to Aquaman instead. I remember being really bitter about that at the time, because I thought "Come on. This is like Aquaman's seventh #1 over the years, we need the promotion more than he does, we're a cop book."
I never thought Aquaman would sell, ever. Of course, Geoff Johns takes over and it becomes the #1 book for several years, eventually.
CA: Well listen, what do you think was more influential: The Joker in the interrogation room, which ended up being in a movie that made a billion dollars, or Aquaman's water hand?
EB: Aquaman's water hand. The weirdest idea ever. He's underwater, how can he have a hand made of water?
CA: If you'd read those issues like I did, you'd know that his hand vanished underwater.
EB: How did he swim then?!
CA: He's Aquaman! All he does is swim!
EB: That's so stupid. I'm mad about it again now! [Laughs]
But, back on point, there's something people get wrong about Gotham Central all the time when they talk about it. The book actually sold pretty well. People always look back on it and say that it was on the verge of cancellation, but there was never talk of canceling the book ever, and it usually sold in the 20,000s. At its absolute lowest, it was at 18,000 or 19,000, which was better than almost everything Vertigo was publishing at the time, other than maybe Fables. It was a critical darling much more than a sales blockbuster, for sure, but there was never anyone at DC going "oh, we're wasting a ton of money on this book." There was never any danger of it being canceled. It was beloved at DC.
The problem at the time was -- it wasn't a Vertigo book, and it wasn't really a DCU book, in that if you gave it to the average Batman reader, they wouldn't get the same jones off of it that they'd get off Hush. So they really didn't know how to sell it. That's why I think you see more people talking about it now than when we were doing it, because now they know how to sell it. Because now they have a TV show that's about cops in Gotham City. Even though it's not Gotham Central, they can at least go "oh hey, here's a comic we put out that everybody really liked 12 years ago."
We sell more now of the trades than we ever did when the book was coming out, and more people talk about it now. I think it was a big influence on some people. I hear from writers all the time who were reading those books when they were coming out and were super into them.
Next: Brubaker discusses relaunching Catwoman and the long run that came from it.