Sometimes the smallest, strangest events can leave the biggest impact on DC Comics' Gotham City. Take writer Peter Milligan's round robin tenure visiting the home of the Dark Knight. While he was only an ongoing Batman scribe for a few scattered issues of "Detective Comics" in the early '90s, Milligan made a mark that stuck with fans including his very first tale of the Riddler's quest to raise a demon from beneath Gotham inspiring a key piece of the mythos at the heart of Grant Morrison's current "Return of Bruce Wayne" series.
This week, CBR's THE BAT SIGNAL column returns with a look across Milligan's Batman writing career. Below, the author delves into how he influenced the classic '90s Azrael/Knightfall saga even after he'd left the Bat-office, the inspiration for his "Batman: The Bat & The Beast" tale set to be collected as a graphic novel on August 25 and what stories fans will and won't be seeing from him in the future of the Dark Knight's world.
CBR News: Peter, when you look across your career, you've written quite a number of Batman comics for all different sorts of artists, events, series and eras. To start, I was wondering if you could tell me a bit about what the attraction to Batman is that brings you back to his world every few years to spin a new tale?
Peter Milligan: Quite simply, he’s one of the best and most interesting comic book characters that have been created. Or at least, he can be. I think it’s his brooding, damaged nature played against the backdrop of what is an extension of his own psyche – Gotham City – that makes him so rewarding to write or read. He can be a vehicle to write fun dark stories about urban craziness or you can really dig deep into troubled psychological territory. It seems that though he was created some years ago he can really stand as an everyman for our own new age of anxiety.
Your very first Batman story – "Dark Knight, Dark City" – is a really creepy look at Gotham and the Riddler which seems to gain more fans every year through internet word of mouth. At the time, did you have one specific kind of Batman story you'd wanted to tell, or did you know that three-parter was the start of more work with the character?
This was the story I wanted to tell, and I’ve alluded to it above. I was interested – and still am – in the relationship between Gotham City and Batman. Interested in how Gotham is a character in itself, as important and Batman, The Joker or, indeed, The Riddler. Because of the varied nature of Gotham City I suppose it’s a story than can be told in a number of different ways.
These days, "Dark Knight, Dark City" is getting some more attention because its plot point about the Demon Barbathos being trapped under Gotham is something Grant Morrison has picked up on in his broader "Batman & Robin"/"Return of Bruce Wayne" story cycle. Is that something Grant has brought up with you as he was writing?
Grant didn’t mention anything to me about it, no. No reason why he should, of course. I think, perhaps, Grant is more interested in the demon as a distinct character. I was really using the demon as a way of personalizing or giving a sentient quality to Gotham City.
Your original, unfortunately brief "Detective Comics" run ran a wild gamut, from supernatural thrillers to psychological identity-driven sci-fi, all told in the frame of one-off stories that didn't rely on the classic cast of Batman villains and supporting players. Looking at those stories now, do they feel of a piece to you with some of your similarly challenging work on books like "Shade" or were those more akin to fictional trials set in Batman's world?
I wasn’t aware of the "Detective" stories being all that challenging, but I suppose they were a little different from the regular kind of "Batman" or "Detective" stories. This wasn’t part of any considered plan or scheme on my part, I was just writing stories that intrigued or amused me. I suppose I wasn’t all that interested in dredging up the same old characters time after time.
Getting ready for this interview, I saw a lot of references to you being the person who inspired the Batman mega-epic "Knightfall" before leaving "Detective," but I never saw confirmation from you on the particulars of that fact. Can you tell me a little about your role in the bigger Bat-plans of the time?
This has all probably got a little out of control, and I can’t throw too much light on it. In fact, I think it was "Sword of Azrael" that I had some influence on – the story that Alan Grant subsequently wrote a lot of. It was towards the end of my tenure on "Detective" (I had some other things I wanted to do, so I asked to leave the book) and I had a meeting with then editor Denny O’Neil. I said that though I wasn’t going to write it, "A good idea would be to…" and I then described something that Denny liked and which morphed into Azrael. I seem to remember getting a call from Alan Grant where he said something like “Ach, Peter. You bastard. Thanks a lot." There was never ever any sense of DC pinching an idea from me or anything like that, in fact they were pretty generous in recognizing my contribution to the storyline.
Since then, you've gotten back to the Dark Knight on and off every few years, with the most recent story being the arc from "Batman Confidential" with Andy Clark that's about to be reprinted in the "Batman: The Bat And The Beast" trade. I thought it interesting that when you finally got down to doing a full arc on a Batman comic on your own, the mission statement of the book necessitated you to dig into some history, both for Batman and for international political intrigue. What hooked you most about the story of a Soviet mobster bear monster?
First of all, I’d probably been reading or hearing a lot about the situation in post-Soviet Moscow. This has repercussions in where I live, London, as a number of Russian dissidents live over here. In fact, Alexander Litvinenko, the ex KGB officer who’d written damning books about the KGB and the new Russian state, lived about a mile from me, before he was assassinated by Polonium 210 poisoning. Actually, one of the themes at the heart of this little arc is one I touched upon above: the importance of the urban setting (in this case Moscow) in the making or shaping of a superhero or supervillain. The villain even wonders at one stage about the “monsters” created by these cities.
Speaking of mining Batman's past for modern tales, you're listed for the upcoming issue #703 of "Batman" dealing with a lot of the history of Dick Grayson, Bruce and the whole cast, it seems. What can you say about the story's conception, and what's it like playing with those characters, especially considering the fact that Bruce is lost in time?
Ah. Funny you should ask that. I didn’t write #703. "Batman" editor Michael Marts were discussing a Batman story, but then, due to personal issues, I had to put things off for a while, and he assigned one of the things we were discussing to Fabian Nicieza. It seems some advanced solicitation leaked out, hence the confusion. But I can just about answer the question. The Batman comics have got a really [wide] range of supporting characters, but the problem is Batman is such a strong character that whenever he (or maybe the Joker) isn’t in a scene, it might feel flat, as though we’re waiting for the real action to begin.
You've been coming in and playing with some of the tools Grant's set up for the Batman mythos on and off again the past few years. Do you have any specific plans for your particular future with the character, either in terms of continuing to contribute occasionally or even having any Batman stories you'd really like to tell at some point?
I never consciously play with any of Grant’s tools, luscious though they undoubtedly are, but I do have some more Batman stories I’m interested in telling. There is one in particular. We just need to wait until the continuity situation can take it, as it’s a fairly radical storyline.