Perhaps best known for his work with comics legend Alan Moore on titles like "Tom Strong" and "Supreme," Sprouse has gained acclaim for bringing his dynamic design sense to creative partnerships with the likes of Warren Ellis, Garth Ennis and Brian K. Vaughan. And while "Return" is his first time pairing with Morrison, the artist has worked on the Dark Knight in the past, if sparingly. Sprouse's earliest exposure with Batman goes back to 1990's "Batman Annual" #14 – a retelling of Two-Face's origin by writer Andy Helfer. Sprouse drew Bruce Wayne one more time since then, but as he explained to CBR, his opportunities to take on Batman have been few and far between. Below, he talks about what it takes to make the character tick, how he fights against type-casting in his work, being his own toughest critic and returning to "Tom Strong" with the June-shipping miniseries "The Robots of Doom."
CBR News: One of the reasons I wanted to make your signing was to bring this copy of "Batman Annual" #14 I've had since I was a kid. Is this the only other time you drew Batman outside of "Return of Bruce Wayne"?
Chris Sprouse: I also did a "Legends of the Dark Knight" – I think it was #27. It was right after the second Tim Burton Batman movie came out, and they had a mad architect blowing up all the modern buildings in Gotham, and behind them were the supposedly old buildings but they were really the Tim Burton Gotham buildings. That was the storyline, and I did the first part of three in 1992. So that was the last time I drew Batman.
You've generally not been known for following characters along through your career unless it's Tom Strong or one of your own characters. Batman is someone who a lot of artists like to return to because it's such a strong visual and design. Did you want to come back and see how your version of the character evolves over the years?
With Batman for me, it's bizarre because I'm finding myself choking like I did with a lot of recent Superman covers. It's like "Oh my God, it's Batman and Superman" and I go in looking for this quality. I don't know what it is exactly, but they've got to look like Batman and Superman to me. I don't want to bring my own style to it. I want to make it not contradict my idea of what those characters are. I'm not going to give them some crazy twist and give Superman long hair or something. I don't know what I'm doing, really. It's not well thought out, but I know it when I get it. With Superman I rarely do, but with Batman I've had more luck not just getting the look but making it feel like Batman. I don't know why Superman is such a struggle. Everyone always says "You should just make him look like Tom Strong and give him and S-Curl," but to me, they're different characters so that doesn't work. Tom Strong is Tom Strong. Superman is something else.
With Batman, I have a little more of a grip, but I still feel like I fail more often than I succeed with him. It doesn't quite have that feel that it should have. I don't know what it is, but it's a quality that says "Batman" that I don't see in, say, somebody that would go extreme like a Simon Bisley or Bill Sienkiewicz Batman – not to put anyone down. There's a chance they'll have the feel of Batman, but it doesn't say "Batman" to me in the way that I grew up reading him. If anything, that's what I aim for. Somewhere between Neal Adams and Marshall Rogers and Michael Golden is the perfect-looking Batman. That's what I'm going for. But I also have ideas about the character where I like to play up the "dark" part of the Dark Knight Detective. He should be mysterious because so much a part of him was striking fear into the hearts of evil doers. He should really do that and not just be a guy in a bright blue and gray costume.
That's going through my head in a fraction of a second when I sit down to draw him. In "Return of Bruce Wayne" even though he doesn't look like Batman, that's what the story's about. It's him striking fear into the heart of people in order to stick up for the little guy and the downtrodden. He's putting fear into these Neanderthal guys, and he needed to have that feel even though he's in this other costume. I tried my best to do that where he just looks scary. I think except for maybe one or two panels I got it, but we'll see.
Well, this first Annual that you did really scared the hell out of me when I was a kid, but it was less for Batman and more for the details you brought to an already intense story. This page where the murderer nonchalantly and nakedly cleans up after the murder freaked me out.
That was the only page I kept. I just didn't want to meet the guy who wanted to own that. [Laughter] So I thought, "I'm not even going to put that one out at the conventions, so I kept it all these years, and I'm really glad because I don't have a lot of my artwork left. But I was dreading meeting the guy who would go, "That's the page for me."
Yeah. That was my first time drawing Batman, and it was strange because that's the one book I look at now – I think I'd been in the business for two years at that point though I hadn't done a lot of jobs – and I wish I could go back and redo that story. It's a great story, and I did the best I could, but I was just too new. I made a lot of storytelling mistakes and a lot of the lighting was just a little too bright for what I see as Batman. Some of it has no lighting where I just avoided the issue altogether...cowardly. [Laughs] But I love that issue too, and I always found it a lot scarier that Two-Face was insane before [the acid attack] ever happened. Or at least he was mentally unstable, and the accident completely wrecked this ordinary guy. It's similar to Batman's origin where we've got normal people and something horrible happens to them and this is the result. It's not radiation or something out of a '60s origin story.
It's really a story all about trauma. But for years, I'd read this book over and over again, and then later on I'd gotten in to your work on "Supreme" and "Tom Strong" and I realized you were the same person who had drawn this Two-Face story. You can tell looking back at this issue where your style grew out of the cartooning, but today your focus seems to be much more on the linework and getting a real distinct and dynamic line.
Oh yeah. The line was always most important to me. And in fact recently on "Number of the Beast" for WildStorm, I did layouts and that's what it broke down to. It was the same exact amount of drawing. I just didn't do any shading or light sources or anything. It was all there, and I showed it to various inkers to see if I should do more, and they said, "No that's perfect." All they had to do was add shading, and it was done. That's how I've always worked. I've always had a stage that was just the linework, and that's always my favorite part of the drawing process. But at this point [with the Annual] I wasn't doing that. What happened was the Art Director for DC kept telling me to "Tighten up! Tighten up!" and that coincided with the fact that I wasn't getting a lot of inking jobs I liked. It didn't looked like what I drew. So it was frustrating, and I kept making it tighter and tighter going, "If I'm less and less loose, I'll give them less room to mess around with it." It was a little control freaky, and now I'm where I'm at. These are my pencils, and a lot of people now say I shouldn't even have an inker, but I still like to because I have to worry a lot less about line weight and things like that.
So editorial came to you with "Return of Bruce Wayne" with an idea of what they wanted. Did that make it a faster job than normal, or did you have a lot of guidelines on what you were doing?
They gave me actually no guidelines. I was nervous at first. The offer came from my editor on "Tom Strong," Ben Abernathy, and he said, "They want you to draw Batman." And I said, "This is going to sound weird, but can I ask you why?" Because all I've ever gotten in the last 15 years at least was "I don't think you'd be good for a character like Batman. Can you draw dark?" And basically, I'll draw whatever the story calls for. If for whatever reason there was a film noir Tom Strong, it would be a lot darker, but it's just not that kind of book. So it's a little bit of type-casting, and I've probably gotten too used to it. I think I'd be a little rustier doing something dark, but I'm willing to do whatever the story calls for. If it's Batman getting brutally beaten up by cavemen, it's got to be that. It can't be a light, open style.
So that's how it worked. It was a conscious choice, but it wasn't meant to be different from me. The only project I've ever taken to be different from what I've done was "Midnighter" for WildStorm, and that's because I got so sick of people saying, "You couldn't do a good job on that kind of a book." So I said "Let's find out!" And it went horribly wrong, but I don't think it's because I got that part of it wrong. I can do the action, the violence, the dark, brooding characters...I can do that as well as I can do lighter comic characters. With "Return of Bruce Wayne" there was no guidelines. They just gave me the script. It was 38 pages, and it took me about two and a half to three months. That's a little slow for me even, but I didn't hear any complaints. Nobody panicked. [Laughs] At least not to me they didn't! It was planned in advance, so I think everything worked out.
What really strikes me about the issue is that even before we get to the whole giant bat costume thing, the first time we see Bruce Wayne, you really made him physically imposing. I know part of Grant's push here and in general has been to amp up Bruce as an actual character and not just the spooky hero in the Bat-mythos. Was that something you were trying to focus on as well?
A little bit. I really wanted to work out a face that still said "Batman" without the mask. His mouth never changes. I think there's a hint of a smile in one panel, but it's essentially the same grim, almost a straight line mouth. You had to know aside from the gray tights that this was Batman. He was even in his caveman Batman outfit for essentially eight pages out of a 38-page book, so I wanted to make him look scary because the reaction the caveman are having right before he appears is "Oh my God, what is this guy?" He scares them even though these are guys who are probably out there in the wild hunting and are ripped themselves. He still has to make them take a step back. I had to make him as impressive as possible.
That was one of two pages I was really worried about in the book. The other was the first one with him in the costume, which is I think the biggest failure in the book for me. It just doesn't feel right for me. I'm hoping readers feel differently, but that was the one page where I wish I could have done it better. Usually that's the kind of thing where in a month I'll go, "Ah! I should have done this." I think that pages needed something more. The Bruce Wayne page felt kind of the same. "I'm not sure if this works, but here we go." But people seemed to have responded to it, so it definitely fits what Grant was going for in the story, which again is what I'm trying to do.
Overall, I'm pretty happy with the job. It came out better than I expected, I'll say that much. I don't want to pat myself on the back because for me that's a really low bar. I usually like about one page per book, so to like two or three is two or three times as great. But I'd say here there are maybe five pages I really like where as a whole, it came out better than I expected. It's different than I expected, and it was quick to work on for that reason. It was a lot of stuff I'd never done before and a lot of stretching. There was a lot of weird storytelling stuff because so much of it was silent, I had to carry off a lot of things on my own.
Next up for you is "Tom Strong And The Robots of Doom." While all the original ABC books were real collaborations between Alan Moore and the various artists, but you seemed to really absorb Tom Strong as your signature in a way that some of the other creators didn't. Coming back now, was this just a matter of you saying "I want to tell another great Tom Strong story" or did you have some specific things you wanted to accomplish with the character?
It is literally the first thing you said. "I want to tell another great Tom Strong story" or just "a great Tom Strong story." If you didn't follow the series for the first part, I hope there's some appeal in this. I was inspired a lot by the script because the script is so good. I hope this isn't poor praise for Peter Hogan, the writer of this series, but it felt so much like "Tom Strong." I won't say it feels like Alan's work, but it feels like the characters. When I was drawing it, I could go on instinct. I would go, "I have to draw this page or this sequence with a certain mood because this is how the character would react." With the story, Peter got it from the start. All the stuff he asked for was spot on, and it's what the characters would do. There's something about his connection to the characters where he gets them...as much as Alan did, I think, and he created them. Peter's really locked on and told great stories. He did four or five issues of the original series, and two of those are my favorite Tom Strong stories ever, including the Alan stuff. As much as I like those, two of the best, most cohesive stories were later ones that Peter wrote – one where they went to the moon and one two-parter with Tom's old girlfriend and Dr. Permafrost. I think those came out great and felt like "Tom Strong." If they'd have left the credits off, I think people would have just been happy reading those and never have noticed it wasn't one consistent voice. It was just "These are the characters, and this is how they talk."
This book was like coming home, not to use too many clichés in one interview. But this was the first time I'd drawn the characters in about five years, and it was really nice to come back to that. I will never need reference to draw these characters. They're in my head. Even if I drew the characters a little different than I had, it's not like I'm going to give Tesla a nice, flowery dress. She's always going to look like Tesla, and when I draw her it's going to come out that way. I hope people notice that it's out. I'm hearing a lot of stuff like, "I never picked up 'Tom Strong' when it was out." And at this point, it was five years ago that it ended. They've got the Deluxe Editions, but that's like $40 to find out who the character is. I hope we do enough explaining in this book – without doing an actual one-page recap – who the character is. My fear is that people are only going to pick up the book if they know about Tom Strong already and that we're not going to get any new readers. I think Tom Strong is the kind of book you could've jumped on at any point, and I hope this series keeps it up.
Well, the cast in that book can be dropped into almost any setting and still work. Was there any new elements here that you wanted to play with?
Oh yes. That was a lot of the fun of this. There are certain characters that after a couple of issues I never got to draw again. Pneuman is one who I rarely got to draw after the first story arc, and Solomon was a lot of fun. We get to see Solomon as a baby. That was a lot of fun drawing baby gorillas! That's one thing I love about Tom Strong...I mean, when I got into comics, I knew I wouldn't be drawing Captain America when I'm working at DC, but who knew I'd get to draw so many Nazis and these other comic book clichés that are so much fun to work with. I mean, I had to look up baby gorillas. That's a lot of fun. And getting to draw these characters that I haven't gotten to draw in years: Ingrid Weiss – and originally we were going to call her Heidi and I keep having to correct that in my head since we changed is because at the time Heidi Fleiss was in the news all the time – and Albrecht, her son, are the villains, and I got to draw them in maybe two issues of the original series. I've been dying to draw them ever since. They were so much fun to create and design, and now I finally get to draw them for six issues. Dr. Permafrost I didn't design – he was designed by Jason Pearson – but he's a tremendous amount of fun to draw, and I got to draw him for two or three issues of this miniseries. There are a lot of neat things. Issue six has a lot I was dying to draw that we never got to do in the series, but I can't talk about it. But there are a lot of character moments that are coming up, and it feels really comfortable to draw "Tom Strong." I can jump in and do it at any time.
"Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne" #1 is on sale now. "Tom Strong And The Robots of Doom" starts its six-issue run in June from DC Comics/WildStorm.