In the world of DC Comics' Dark Knight Detective, the 70-plus years of comic stories have seen shifts from bouncy pop icon to grim gothic avenger and all points in between. The wide range of Batman stories in the canon have been pointed to as one of the character's biggest strengths while also offering up frequent points of debate for fans.
Writer and film director Kevin Smith is also no stranger to a broad range of stories or plenty of debate from comic fans. Aside from his multiple comedy films like "Clerks" and "Cop Out," Smith has penned a number of memorable – if controversial – comic runs from DC's "Green Arrow" to Marvel's "Daredevil." And for the past year, he teamed again with his lifelong friend artist Walter Flanagan (who he wrote the "Batman: Cacophony" series for) to create a superhero comic in the Dark Knight's world – "Batman: The Widening Gyre," the hardcover collection of which is on sale next week.
To tackle all the issues surrounding his latest comic work, CBR News shines its regular interview column THE BAT SIGNAL on Smith as he discusses "The Widening Gyre" at length. From the controversial "peeing" scene in its sixth issue to shocking events at the end of the first volume and from the history of he and Flanagan's "Cacophony" partnership to his shift in tone for the book's impending second half, Smith covers everything his fans and his critics have said about the work and why he's excited to continue it.
CBR News: The characters you've pulled out in your Batman work – from Silver St. Cloud to guys like Maxie Zeus or Mr. Zsasz – are definitely not the kinds of supporting players we've seen too much in recent memory. Was part of what drew you to this book also playing with the characters of "your Batman?"
Kevin Smith: Absolutely. And there's a big generation gap in the readership of that comic. If you grew up reading the same shit that I did, "Widening Gyre" is a fun read. Even if you're not fond of the story, it's like, "Oh, there's this! Oh, there's that!" I was a big fan of Marshall Rogers and Steve Englehart's books. So we wanted to do something like that – the idea that we'd take the idea of Batman and not just do the "I'm strictly going to beat ass on criminals." What I've always liked is when they go into Batman's personal life. I love when they show him dating. I love the inner conflicts. Those books – especially for when they came out – were amazingly ahead of their time and sold really well, too. So it's not like there's never been a call for that, but it's been a long time since they've done stories like that. Comic books have been redefined a thousand times over since then, so there's not that much of a call of that kind of a story or that kind of a Batman.
But if I'm going to write something, that's my Batman. That's the Batman I'm going to lean to. I'm not going to write the current version of Batman – not because I don't like it! I just don't have that emotional connection to it. It's like with my kid. I tried to show my kid "The Brady Bunch" once, and I was like, "Oh my God! You're going to love this show. I loved this when I was your age." And the kid was looking at me like, "What did I do wrong? Why are you punishing me? Why are we watching this horrible old television show?" I realized, that's mine. "Brady Bunch" is my childhood, it's from back when there were three networks and two syndicated networks, and one of them constantly ran "The Brady Bunch." My kid came of age in a world where not only did she have 800 channels to choose from, some of those channels program directly to her. So they make new programs for her. She's not going to want to sit there and watch the reruns I used to watch. It was like, that element of my youth that I thought worked for everybody because we all grew up with this culture touchstone is now falling to the wayside, replaced by a new universal touchstone for an entirely new generation.
Based on that, you sit there and watch as my first few Batman books came out and see people going, "This ain't Batman! What the fuck? Smith takes a lot of liberties with Batman! This is no Batman I've ever seen!" And I was like, "Oh! These cats are young! Apparently they started reading comic books way after me, because this shit is rooted firmly in the era I grew up reading." So when I look at my Twitter feed, there's like 5% of these new cats that get really up in arms when you touch Batman in any way they don't like. And I'm not talking old guys. I don't get taken to task by old timers. I get taken to task by young whipper snappers who are like, "Hey man, I've been reading Batman for my whole life...three years! And you've done him wrong!" I'm like, "I've been reading Batman since you were cum in your father's balls, and this fits well with my Batman, to tell the truth."
it really looked like a lot of the ire directed at the series came from the scene that was a callback to "Batman: Year One" where you revealed that he'd lost control of his bladder in the famous "You have eaten well" scene.
And editorial signs off on it. These get vetted by not just my editor, but by a bunch of editors – the entire Batman group and then more people above them who go through going, "Is there anything weird here?" Believe me, every one of my scripts goes through that process. And thank God, because other things got knocked that never made it to the fucking page. But by the time the Batman bladder thing made it to the page, it had been vetted by a bunch of people who had been doing this for years, and not one of them was like "Oh my God! We're going to shake things up with this!" They were all like, "Yeah, this is fine...and wait until you see when we bring Batman back from the caveman days!" That was the big news.
So when some people went apeshit – and literally, it's just some people, like two websites who are buddies. So when those dudes started picking on me, going, "He made Batman wet his pants! How dare he?!?!" I was just like, "Even a fireman – a fireman who is a trained professional with explosives and works in the hottest flames and all kind of heat – told me, "Yeah...that's what happens. Bladder spasms. You can't help it. When you get hit by a blast of heat, that fucking happens." That doesn't matter to some people. You give them scientific proof that it's a literal occurrence – it's not like I'm making Batman go pee pee in his pants, though that may be your perspective as an 11-year-old intellect. But this is a real occurrence, and they don't want to hear that.
When I saw the outrage, I was like, "Where is this coming from?" because nobody I know would ever behave like that as a rational adult. But I forgot. They weren't adults. It was the next generation, or maybe two or three generations removed from where I was. And they were saying, "This isn't any Batman I've ever seen." But meanwhile, most cats on my Twitter feed who were my age and reading comics back then were going, "This is the best Batman I've read in a while" – not because it's any good! It's just because it was the Batman they grew up reading, and nobody writes it like that anymore. That's all it was. I found myself a little niche, and it wasn't intentional or targeted. It's just the only Batman I want to write.
I don't want to write Grant Morrison's Batman. Grant Morrison writes Grant Morrion's Batman! If anything, I'd want to write Grant Morrison's old Batman because on the new stuff he's doing a brilliant job and needs no fucking assistance. But I loved his characterization from "JLA." I borrowed that for my Batman. I borrowed from Rogers and Englehart. I took from Alan Moore's treatment of Batman and Neil Gaiman's Batman. Those are the writers that I loved when I was first reading comics or when I got back into Batman after falling out with comics in high school circa '88 or '89. I got back into comics because I remember there was an ad in "Rolling Stone," a DC Comics subscription ad timed with the "Batman" movie release. All it said was "Gritty. Graphic. Grown Up." It was this tits-up picture of a stern-looking Batman. It wasn't the Brian Bolland Batman, but it was this image they put on a lot of t-shirts at that point. I wish I could remember which artist drew it. But somebody sent a shot across the bow saying, "Comics aren't for children anymore," and I got right back into them and read "Dark Knight," "The Cult," "Camelot 3000," "Mage," "Grimjack" and "The Killing Joke," which had come out right then. And I read it all going "This is literature. This is literature with pictures in it. This has nothing to do with the Riddler and Commissioner Gordon and Chief O'Hara from the TV show when I was a child. This shit is flat out Mickey Spillane, but they just happen to wear tights." So I got way deep into it, and those were the writers that influenced me. When I write my Batman, I'm trying to ape those guys. Some people are like "You're not doing a very good fucking job" but whatever. [Laughter] I like it!
With Batman, it seems like you're playing with this in a different way than you would with, say, Daredevil or Green Arrow. In those runs, you had a more limited, single-book history to place a story's context within, but since there are so many Batman stories and versions out there, do you pay less attention to worrying about how it works in terms of continuity and that?
Oh, yeah. And with our book, when that bladder thing happened, there were a bunch of people going "Tell me it's not in continuity! This can't possibly be in continuity!" But it is a continuity book. The beauty of Batman is, "When did that happen? Who the fuck knows?" When did our story take place? Before "No Man's Land?" Before Batman got lost in the timestream? When Batman got his back broken by Bane? You could kind of place the story somewhere in between there and in the DC Batman continuity based on references to events, but at the same time, the beauty of the character is that it's nebulous. There's so much happening that you always have people questioning "Where was that? Did that happen in relation to 'Year Two?'" You can get away with stuff because of that, but when you do something like bladder spasm, they call for your head. Then they want to make sure you're not in continuity. But we are in continuity! That's part of the fun. I wouldn't do it if it wasn't in continuity. That's the kind of comic book fan I am. They could say, "You can do whatever you want, but it's got to be an Elseworlds," but then I'd say, "What's the point? Elseworlds blows." I want to work in the sandbox. I want to play in continuity and reference shit that happened and have it fall in place.
It's weird. Here's what I've found: I have more success, not in the comic book marketplace, but outside of it. When we did "Cacophony," the reviews were fucking vicious. The two people that review comics online anymore shit all over it – "Oh, this is terrible! This is ridiculous!" So when we were done with the three issues, I was like, "Jesus, man. Thank God we liked it, because nobody else did!" But then when we released it in hardcover, it was a New York Times Bestseller for like three weeks straight. It dropped off and then came back and stayed in the top ten for weeks. Suddenly, we're getting reviews from people who aren't bitter and going, "Hey! You're not using my Batman! And you ain't fucking Bendis!" – to which my reply is "Of course I'm not Bendis. He works way too much." But once you get taken to task for that, it becomes the reality of the moment. You say, "I guess this Lorax who speaks for the trees has told us nobody likes us." But all of the sudden, when you take it out into the real world – into the much fucking larger world – and you wind up on the Times Bestseller List, and people are talking about it good in other places, and you go, "This is great! I never need to worry about people talking anymore about the monthly version of this because it just sours my appreciation for the whole." When the whole thing goes out there, it'll be appreciated by the audience that really wants to read it. And that's key. It makes you enthused, and the comic is better when your enthusiasm is high as well.
You're obviously going to be coming back next year for the second half of "Gyre," and you left it on quite a cliffhanger.
The whole book was engineered for that fucking moment. I'll tell you the exact story of how it happened. We did "Cacophony," and then Dan [Didio] was like, "Do you guys want to do something else?" And we went "Really?!?!" Because again, the two reviews I'd read online were mean, so I didn't think anybody liked it. And Dan went, "Dude...the sales." And I was like, "Oh yeah, there's that." So we were going to do another book. I wanted to do "Batman/Swamp Thing." But I guess Karen Berger had Swamp Thing as part of the Vertigo line, then, and she'd read the story I'd kind of written out and said, "Look, I like your story, but we don't cross those two so much anymore. Batman stays in the DCU, and Swamp Thing stays in Vertigo." So I went back to the drawing board, but Walter had been drawing vines and leaves for a few weeks, and I had to be like, "Put it away, dude!" That's why when you look at issue #1 and Ivy takes over Arkham, there's all that vine work because Walter had spent two weeks drawing plants. He was like, "I know we're not doing Swamp Thing anymore, but fuck you - I'm drawing some plants." [Laughter]
So I went back to the drawing board and asked him, "What do you want to do?" How we did "Cacophony" was that I'd seen a billboard with Batman on it somewhere, and I thought it'd been a while since I'd done a comic book. I thought, "Walter does comic books now, and we've never done one together. Let me see if I could do a comic book with Walt." So I called up Dan Didio, who I'd met at a convention once, and said, "Hey man, it's Kevin. I know [Bob] Schreck was my guy there back when I did 'Green Arrow,' but I've got a hankering to do a Batman book. I'll do it for next to nothing, but I want to do it with my friend as the artist." And he was like "Okay." So Dan set it up, and then I called up Walter and said, "Hey, do you want to do a Batman book at DC?" And he said, "Yeah. I also want to have sex with, like, 20 women at once." And I said, "No, I think we can do it. I called Dan Didio and told him we wanted to do it together." Because Walt's the dude who got me into comics. He reintroduced me when I was kind of looking at "Killing Joke," and he slapped a copy of "The Dark Knight Returns" trade paperback into my hands.
So he says to me, "Are you seriously asking me if I want to do this? Because they'd let you do it if you called them up and said, 'I want my fucking kid to draw it in crayons.'" I said, "What do you want, dude? An engraved invitation? You've always wanted to draw Batman. Take this chance. Fuck, 'Why?'" And sure enough, people went after Flanagan going "Oh, he's just a friend of Kevin Smith's." Well, yeah he's a friend of Kevin Smith's! How else are you supposed to get your foot in the fucking door? It's a very closed industry. Walter, at that point, wasn't top flight A-talent or whatever, but if you watch "Cacophony" and look at that book from beginning to end – particularly in the scenes that overlap, like in #1 when Joker's reading an Ayn Rand book in his cell and in the last issue he's reading Ayn Rand in a hospital bed. The difference between those two Jokers is miles wide. That's just because he had practice, practice, practice.
Yeah, it's a little bit of nepotism for me to go, "Can I bring my guy on the book?" But without my guy, the book wouldn't exist. And I think Dan knew that. If I had called Walter and he had no interest – if he had said, "Nah, fuck it" – then I would have called Dan back and said, "I'm going to get to it. Just give me a few months, and I'll get back to it," and then I never would have gotten back to it. But Walter's enthusiasm fed my enthusiasm. Basically, that whole project became, "Who do you want to draw?" He'd say, "I want to draw him, him and him," and I'd say, "Great. I'll work those dudes into the story." And then I'd say, "Do you mind using Onomatopoeia?" Because it'd been years since I did that "Green Arrow" run where we introduced that character, and I get a call at least once a year from a DC editor going, "This writer would like to use Onomatopoeia. Can we use him here?" And I've always said no, because I figured I would come back and do his story in another "Green Arrow" run. But suddenly, I realized I could bring him into this book, and it would help out and give us a place to start out from: the return of Onomatopoeia.
Suddenly, we started building the story. Walt is really a co-plotter because I don't write anything unless it's what he wants to draw. "Cacophony" became kind of a test run for "Widening Gyre." I was like, "Now, give me your complete list of everything you've ever wanted to draw," and he gave me some shit that was just way, way the fuck out there – like Crazy Quilt. And because he gave me so many things, I knew I'd never be able to fit them all into the A narrative or the front arc of the book – what Batman's going through with Silver and reaching a mid-life crisis. But I knew I could weave them in and out if I used this flashback device, and that's where that came from. I was able to stop every once in a while and draw two pages of a book from the '70s. It was all laying the groundwork going, "Just trust, Bruce. Just trust. Just change and drop your guard and trust." And then we see what happens when he does that.
Those first six issues were all about making the reader comfortable, and there's no better way to do that than to go, "Remember all these great fucking characters from the DC Universe's past?" It was nice having Walt as a co-pilot, and while all these people are giving him shit because, "He just knows Kevin Smith" – which is true – the only reason that book exists is because of Walter Flanagan. Maybe some will say, "Maybe the book shouldn't exist," but I can show you a shit ton of great reviews for the trade, and I can show you a sales sheet that says it sold well. And at the end of the day for DC, I guess that's something that's very important to them. [Laughter]
For all Walt's contributions, I know that core story of Bruce and Silver and how it affects the man is something you're very engaged with as a writer. Considering the ending of the first six issue story, how are you approaching taking the book forward from here?
Well, when we first started talking about "Gyre" after he gave me that list, I told him, "This is what I want to do," and it took us to that final double-page spread of issue #6. We worked a year just to get to that moment. The whole time we had to eat shit up front with people going, "What the fuck is this? Batman giving piggybacks?" And the whole time Walt and I were like Porkins – "Stay on target! Stay on target!" – because we knew that if we could just get to issue #6, and they'd turn to that last page, they'd see us going "Fuck you! It's fucking bad ass, metal Batman, bitch!!!" as opposed to lovey dovey Batman that they seemed to think the book was. But you can't get to metal Batman until you give him something to love.
The one thing I feel, as a Batman reader of a long time - they never really spend time on Batman's personal life with chicks. Women have been a part of the stories over the years, but I wanted to go a little deeper and say, "Here are two people that are so well known and recognized that they can't live normal lives...never mind what he does at night." I wanted to dig into the idea for him of, "Hey...I missed my entire 20s. I've been out on the street beating ass, but I never really got to go out and have fun." And where can people like that go out to? They hop on a jet and get the fuck away and go to an island. That, to me, is interesting and fun, to play with his wealth. I hadn't seen it done too many times like that.
But make no mistake about it, the whole reason we did these first six issues was to get to that last moment. And the second we agreed on it, it was like, "What do you do next?" And we knew the next six would be "Batman goes batshit." We've been plotting it out slowly, and it's no longer about "What do you want to draw?" It's now about "How do you want to see Batman drawn?" in terms of how he was cleaned up in the first six, and now we're asking how much blood we can put in, how much stubble he can have and shit like that. They're polar opposites, "Gyre" volume 1 and volume 2. They're completely different books. You could give your mother volume 1 and just leave off the last two pages, but you couldn't give her volume 2 because it's the "Batman beats ass" book.
You just finished filming your new movie "Red State." Does that mean that you'll have time coming up to dive back into writing Batman?
Oh yeah, I've been. I'm almost done with my script, and Walter will get it by the end of next week or something. We're looking for Spring to launch the new one.
The "Batman: The Widening Gyre" Vol. 1 hardcover is in stores next week from DC Comics.