SCOTT SNYDER: FROM VEGAS TO GOTHAM
It doesn't seem all that long ago, but back in March I introduced CBR readers to Scott Snyder with a discussion of his upcoming work and his experiences as a teacher. Since then, Snyder has gotten a little more attention and found himself at the helm of a little book called "Detective Comics."
Snyder's run on "Detective" debuts in November with Jock and Francesco Francavilla providing the pretty pictures. he's been talking up the series around the internet, describing how he wants to bring the "detective" back to "Detective Comics," and I wanted to talk to him about his approach in a bit more detail. Specifically, his big-picture approach to the series and what he's learned from what has come before.
Oh, and we talk about the next "American Vampire" arc too, because that comic is good.
Tim Callahan: What kind of Batman comics have you been reading or rereading to get yourself in the mindset of a guy who recently landed the gig writing "Detective Comics"?
Scott Snyder: I've been re-reading a lot of my favorite Batman mysteries, from "Long Halloween" to "The Man Who Laughs" to earlier stuff I have at my folks' house, like Mark Waid's "Detective Annual" #2 - it's this spooky KKK story. "Gotham Central" - the whole series. But I've also been re-reading a lot of Grant Morrison's big run. Not for factual stuff or continuity, but because I love how he works these broad themes into a story, these big concepts and over-arching ideas about Batman - his own mythology, you know? I felt like if I was going to take "Detective" on for a good long while, I'd need to develop my own sense of what my big story was, not just the plot, but the ideas and themes, what my own interests and beliefs about Batman were first.
Callahan: How is that similar or different to the way you worked on your previously published comics? Does the Batman mythology lead to different kinds of stories or a different approach?
Snyder: Honestly, it's not different from how I approach "American Vampire" or how I approached "Iron Man: Noir." It's pretty much how I always go about writing a story, I guess. First I think of a premise or situation that I myself would really like to see - like with that character, and then I try to spend some time figuring out why that particular scenario is interesting to me - why it's exciting or disturbing to me, personally - and once I feel like I have a handle on that, I try to push the story in that direction. For example, the upcoming cycle of "American Vampire" (issues #6-9): I knew I wanted to jump a decade or so after the 20s, to broaden the reach of the story and the cast (human and vampire), so I tried to think of where I'd like to see Skinner and other vampires at work in the 30's.
I considered Chicago, the Delta, a couple other places, the one that kept coming back to me was Las Vegas. Vampires in 1930's Las Vegas. So then I try to figure out for myself why I personally like that combination, to figure out why it's interesting to me (beyond just the coolness of vampires in suits in the casinos and hotels of the 30's). So I started digging and I realized that I liked vampires in that place at that time, because the city itself is really exciting to me just then - it's still 1/2 cow-town, but it's growing so rapidly, and the blueprint of the Las Vegas we know today is already visible. It's a city caught in between two phases, with the Hoover Dam being built down the road, the Depression everywhere else but there, this huge, expanding red-light district... Basically, in the 1930's Las Vegas is becoming a city that's completely at odds with its natural setting - this pleasure island in the middle of a massive desert. There's something alluring and glamorous and enticing about the city, but also something unnatural and creepy and predatory. So then I start to see - I like vampires in 1930's Vegas because there are these weird, fun parallels between the city and these monsters. And so then I start figuring out a way of plotting a story that will let me really get into that stuff, not so much in analytical or intellectual way, but in a personal way - constructing a story with a character at the center who'll be feeling these things, struggling with them on a deep, emotional and psychological level. So that's how Cash McCogan was born... He's the star of cycle 2.
Don't get me wrong, all the characters from cycle 1 play big parts - Pearl, Skinner, Felicia Book - but Cash is the narrator and protagonist. He's a young chief of police in 1935 Las Vegas. His father, chief Augustus McCogan was killed less than a year before the story starts and so he's inherited this job, the responsibility of managing this city that's growing at a completely insane rate. And then the bodies start showing up - the bodies of prominent Las Vegas citizens, drained of blood. This mystery leads him down the rabbit hole into the world of American Vampire - where Skinner and Pearl are waiting, along with ancient vampires, European vampires, gangsters and lawmen... Man, this is a long answer! I just wanted to show you in some kind of concrete way how I build a story.
It was the same with "Detective." I tried to picture some scenes I'd love to see, and then I went about figuring out why those scenes were compelling to me, building a big, really aggressive story that pushes Batman into that territory, if that makes sense...
Callahan: Seems like you're grappling with some real-world history in "American Vampire," but you don't have that to draw upon in "Detective Comics." Does that make it more difficult to find something to latch onto? It's all well and good to delve deeply into the fascinating time of early Vegas, and then bring in supernatural forces to symbolize the darkness and violence of that time, but with Batman stories, it's all just a bunch of made up stories taking place in a made up city. How do you find the themes inherent in that? Or do you come at it from a different angle?
And what is it that you find fascinating about Gotham, about Gordon, about Batman and his world?
Snyder: It's still the same, I think, because it's not so much the history itself that's compelling to me - the history is interesting on its own - but the way that historical setting allows for an exploration of character. Meaning, Las Vegas in the 1930s has always been interesting to me, but I've never written about it before. I'm writing about it here because it allows a way into some really rich human drama when it comes to characters dealing with vampires. As for Batman, I tried to think of what kind of Batman moments I love the most, and what I'd like to see. So for me, they're usually moments when Batman - Bruce or Dick - sees his deepest personal fears reflected in the challenge in front of him. The moments when he sees himself as human and vulnerable and hates it.
That's why I've enjoyed Grant's run so much - it's about Batman facing his fears on every level. The Black Glove, Simon Hurt possibly being related to him, Damian as a twisted reflection of Bruce and so on. "Year One" is the same for me, in the way that Jim Gordon (who seems to me to be the actual protagonist of that story) sees his own worst failings and fears reflected in the city, in the crooks and cops around him - ultimately the challenge brings out the best in him. "The Cult" - Batman is psychologically broken for the first time and then has to go back into the lion's den. "The Dark Knight Returns" - Batman's own failing body is his enemy. "The Killing Joke" - he has come to understand even at the book's start that he and the Joker are extensions of each other. I wish I could be more specific about what my run is going to be about, but I have to play it close to the vest for now. It's called the "Black Mirror," though.
Callahan: Let's keep it a little more general, then. What's your concept of Gotham City's geography? Do you have a map in your mind of all the darkest corners of the city? Is there an official map of Gotham that you use as reference? I'm just imagining that the city will be as important as the characters for your run on "Detective."
Snyder: I have a map in my mind, and I use one that's generally available, too - no secret official one. But yes, the city plays a huge part in the series. We'll explore the wealthiest areas and the tunnels, historical locations and new developments. I really want the city to be more than a context; I'd like the history and present state of Gotham to be part of the mysteries Batman has to solve. Like, Batman has to be familiar with Gotham's past to understand its present well enough to solve certain crimes in the present I love Brubaker's "Made of Wood' mystery from a couple years back, for example. It has Batman solving a murder that has links to a murder case Alan Grant struggled with in Golden Age Gotham - the way the answer to a case taking place in the present is buried in some dark secret in Gotham's past. I love that stuff. So yes, Gotham itself plays a very, very big part in the series. One of the main themes has to do with Batman's struggle to understand how the city has changed in the past couple years and is still changing, now that Bruce is back.
Callahan: We're going to have to set aside some time as we continue this chat to talk more deeply about Grant Morrison, because I know you mentioned to me that you've been going back through a lot of his work, not just his Batman stuff, and I'm obviously a big Morrison nerd.
You've mentioned Waid and Brubaker and Grant (and, indirectly, Jeph Loeb) so far, as sources of inspiration for your take on Batman and his world. But I can't help but think that the whole notion of Gotham-as-a-central-character reminds me of the work of someone like Brian Wood or, even more potently, Jason Aaron. Both of those guys - fellow Vertigo-mates of yours - tend to write stories with a keen and palpable sense of place. I'm partial to "Northlanders" and "Scalped," and both of those comics are so invested in their settings that the characters - as evocative and fleshed-out as they are, particularly in "Scalped" - become moving parts that embody certain geographic regions. I don't really have a point here, except that I really like that approach when it's done well, and based on what you've done in "American Vampire" and what Wood and Aaron have done, it seems that you share something in your bones that leads you down a similar trail. It's a good trail to ride down.
Snyder: Thanks man. It's great to mentioned in that company. I've read pretty much everything Brian and Jason have done, for Vertigo and beyond, and I'm a huge fan. I still think "Scalped" is the best series out there. With "American Vampire," it was a very conscious decision to make the context of each cycle very important to the story. Meaning, cycle one wouldn't just use the Old West or the 1920's as window dressing for a story that could take place anytime. Same with the upcoming cycle; it's very much about the 1930s and the place in which it's set (Las Vegas). The series is meant to be fun and dark and a page-turner, but deep down, we're also trying to explore questions of American identity - what makes us us. To play with questions about what makes America great and scary and all these things at once. Anyway, in a broader way, but on the same point, I think what makes Vertigo so special is the way Karen Berger and Will Dennis and everyone there really encourage you, as a creator, to make your series very distinct. Not just in its hook or its art or even its voice - they want your project to be a wholly realized vision, something with strong central ideas and themes, characters that the creator knows and cares about. So all of the series feel like that, I think - like they have a strong sense of place, even if they don't have an actual location to them. Like "Sweet Tooth," for example. There aren't distinct locations given, but the sense of place is so strong in that book, because Jeff has a real sense of the world. It's his. I guess at the end of the day, it's the same thing they teach you in writing school for lit fiction, too. You have to have your story be about something that matters to you. Not necessarily some big idea or thesis or anything; it just has to be about things you care about. It has to be the story you'd pick up and read out of all the ones on the shelf, whether it's the best or not, it's the best for you.
To be continued next week with a discussion about the stylings of Grant Morrison!
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.
Follow Tim on Twitter: TimCallahan