Marvel Comics' Captain America has battled some intriguing villains over the course of his 70 year history. Among the most infamous have been diabolical masterminds like the Red Skull, Baron Zemo and Doctor Faustus. While those miscreants have been responsible for some of Cap's most harrowing adventures, when it comes to style and panache none of them holds a candle to Batroc the Leaper. Batroc made his debut in 1966's "Tales of Suspense" #75. Unlike most of Captain America's villains who came at him with swords, firearms, or high tech devices like the Cosmic Cube, Batroc went into battle armed only with his wits, his lightning fast feet, and a killer mustache. This combination was never enough to ultimately defeat the Sentinel of Liberty, but Batroc has proven himself to be one of Cap's most tenacious foes.
His resilience is the reason for this; in spite of his many defeats the Leaper keeps coming back for more. This March he'll have his second face-off with the new Captain America, Bucky Barnes, in the "Captain America and Batroc" one-shot by writer Kieron Gillen and artist Renato Arlem. We spoke with Gillen about the project which delves into the mind of Batroc and is part of a series of one-shots that celebrates Captain America's 70th anniversary by spotlighting his allies and enemies.
Gillen actually had the idea for "Traceur," his story in "Captain America and Batroc," years before editor Charlie Beckerman asked him if he would be interested in penning a story starring the Leaper.
"There are some writers doing superhero comics who know what characters they want to work with for all their lives. I don't really think seriously about characters I don't own unless I've been asked to. There's so much stuff to think about, and thinking about a character I don't have much access to is something I actively try and avoid," Gillen told CBR News. "On the other hand the human brain is what the human brain is and occasionally something just happens. This may be the only complete Marvel story idea I had before I even started working there. I just found myself looking at Batroc and thinking, 'So what makes that guy get up every day?' He's a character who gets punched a lot and people tend to treat him quite lightly. So how does that affect his head?' I wondered what his mindset was. I can only assume the hand of fate was working overtime when Charlie Beckerman mailed me, asking if I had an idea for a Batroc story. It just so happened that I did have a Batroc story! I immediately e-mailed back and they really, really liked my idea. The rest will be history when the comic comes out."
When compared to other Captain America villains like the Red Skull, Batroc, with his over exaggerated French accent and obscure martial arts knowledge might come off as a little underwhelming. However, Gillen finds Batroc to be a fun and fascinating member of Cap's rogues gallery. "I like the leaping. The leaping is all right and the man is sporting one hell of a mustache. He's funny too," Gillen remarked. "The way I try to examine his ridiculous French accent is he's almost kind of like Spider-Man in a way. He's aware of how bad his French accent is. A lot of this story is actually written first person so we get to see Batroc's thought captions in addition to his speech balloons. Of course as a French speaker he's totally fluent. The thought captions are in an existentialist style, in that he takes himself very seriously and is not always aware of his own contradictions and in his conversations with the external world he's Batroc Ze Leaper."
The majority of Batroc's clashes with Captain America usually end in a painful defeat for the Leaper. Despite this, Batroc keeps coming back for more and still believes his fighting skills are more than a match for Captain America. Gillen finds that confidence to be refreshing. "He's a guy who fights superhumans and knows an obscure French martial art that he's pretty good at. It's given him decent thigh muscles. He gets up in the morning though and says, 'I think I'll fight Captain America today'. He's not like Iron Fist. He wasn't trained by mystical monks. He's a guy who fights at a level where he's out of his league and he stays there. That's what I find interesting about him. You wonder what makes a guy do that," the writer explained. "One of the elements that gets the story moving is that people hire Batroc to fight Captain America because not many people can. He's a guy with a track record. Yes, he may not be able to beat him, but he can fight him. In fact the best you're going to get is somebody who could fight him; because if somebody could actually beat Captain America, there wouldn't be a Captain America."
Batroc is a master of Savate, a French form of kick boxing. In "Captain America and Batroc" Gillen adds another unique French art to the Leaper's bag of tricks, the discipline of Parkour. "The idea of Batroc and Parkour has never been touched on before, but you think a French guy who's famous for his leaps would really be into the whole Parkour thing. That's why the title of this story is called 'Traceur.' A traceur is what a Parkour practitioner would call themselves. I thought about the philosophy of Parkour. It's not a competition. It's not structured in that way. It's about being the best you can be and that's kind of what Batroc is trying to live up to," Gillen said. "He has this moment very early on in the comic where he realizes he's always been a traceur. He thinks, 'It's not about the competition with the guy I'm fighting. It's about physical excellence and living up to it.' That's the stuff that's brewing in his mind as we work to a conclusion. Now despite having said that he is a very arrogant man. He is a guy who chooses to go and fight superhumans."
The superhuman Batroc chooses to fight the most is Captain America and, unlike most villain-hero relationships, Gillen doesn't feel the dynamic between Batroc and the Sentinel of Liberty is one defined by hatred. "He doesn't really hate Captain America. He kind of views himself as better than Cap anyway. He looks at him as sort of a prize," Gillen stated. "It's kind of like going to a gym and seeing how big of a weight you can lift. You think, 'That's a really big weight. I'd like to be able to lift that.' When Captain America is involved Batroc sees a mountain, a challenge. There's that documentary about a French guy who climbs skyscrapers. That guy has a bit of Batroc in him."
While he's had many clashes with Steve Rogers, Batroc has only gone up against the new Captain America, Bucky Barnes, once before. That encounter only reinforced Batroc's desire to fight and eventually take down the symbol that is Captain America. "He knew Steve Rogers and what to expect. This new guy is still a bit of an unknown quality. When this story is set is a little ambiguous because Bucky is on trial right now in 'Captain America.' When I wrote it Batroc didn't know the new Cap was Bucky and was kind of speculating over who this new guy is," Gillen explained. "He knows that it may not be Steve Rogers, but this new Captain America is still somewhat of a Super Soldier. He's not going to be a normal guy like Batroc. There's got to be something else involved like cybernetics, or cloning. He knows that's how they do things with Captain America. They don't just give the title to a guy like Batroc -- who is in his view better than Captain America because he never had to have any artificial help."
Since Gillen's story is told from Batroc's point of view, Captain America will be playing the role of antagonist. "Cap is Apollo Creed in 'Rocky'. You can almost view this story as 'Batrocky.' You get to see him training for the big fight despite not quite being in the world champion's league. That's the shape of the story. Every time Batroc goes to fight Captain America he's sort of like Rocky," Gillen stated. "Plus, I always like it in Marvel Comics when you viewed the heroes from outside. In this situation you'd wonder, how do people feel about fighting Captain America? Scared is the main reaction you'd get. He's Captain America, he's been kicking ass since the 1940s. His antagonists would probably think that their side is going to lose because Cap has beaten up people like them before. Even arrogant people sort of have that feeling. So you get to see how Batroc views Captain America's actions. That will be quite interesting I think."
In Gillen's story it's a simple phone call that sets the conflict between the title characters in motion. "The issue starts with Batroc in a hotel room living the life he lives between jobs, which is drinking heavily and having sex with people. He does a low-rent international playboy thing. He's ex Foreign Legion. He's not the guy we expect to see in Monte Carlo, but he's quite prepared to go beneath the radar. That's generally how he stays out of prison," Gillen said. "The people that call and hire Batroc are supporting characters in the story. They're performing a heist. They want to go into a location, grab some technology, and get out. They believe this might lead to Captain America coming after them, which is why they made the phone call.
"So you also get to see Batroc interacting with a crew, which is interesting as well because you get to see how other villains view Batroc, or how the average thug views Batroc," Gillen continued. "That's of course a different way than how they view Captain America, because Batroc is a guy who gets beaten up on television, while Captain America is generally the guy who gives beatings when he's on television."
In "Captain America and Batroc" the Leaper will have home court advantage because the heist he's been hired to help with takes place in Paris. "I wanted to set the story in Paris because with Parkour you basically had kids in Paris growing up in these enormous concrete estates. In a lot of ways they were these prisons designed to hold the lower classes. Instead of thinking, 'Oh my god this is a really bad place they've put us,' they kind of reinvented their surroundings with their minds. That was one of the things I really liked about Parkour when I first heard about it. It's the idea of essentially reprocessing your environment. You're treating it in almost a completely different way than how it was created," Gillen explained. "This decade has weirdly made me a Francophile because I've grown to like their national characteristic of incredible stubbornness. I tend to think maybe the world would be a better place if more of us were stubborn."
"Captain America and Batroc" is a tightly woven character study that blends together many different genre elements for a unique tone. "It's a heist movie structured as a sports movie," Gillen revealed. "I've done quite a lot of comics for Marvel and some of have been borderline street level, but this is my first proper street level comic. 'Batman: Year One' was kind of the tone I wanted for it. It's almost noirish, which is kind of how I viewed it. But, well, with Batroc."
Since Gillen's story involved a lot of diverse elements he needed an artist who excelled at drawing many different things. The writer feels Renato Arlem was exactly the man for the job. "He draws a fantastic Paris and he's really good with the physicality. He makes Batroc look really capable. When Batroc walks into a room with these thugs they're smaller than he is," Gillen explained. "He's not a top level figure in the world of costumed heroes and villains, but he is this huge, charismatic figure. You'll get that. It's done quite subtly in the panels. Plus he does the stuck in bedrooms waiting for the job style scenes really well too. It feels properly seedy."
Writing Batroc proved to be a highly enjoyable assignment for Gillen and if his workload permits the writer would love the chance to pen another story featuring the Leaper. "I don't think he fits in well with anything I'm writing at the moment, [Laughs] except maybe in passing. I certainly would like to write him again, especially since this is a story that allows for some first person narration. When you do that you get quite a good handle on the character. So if I ever did get the chance to write him again I'd certainly embrace it. I feel confident that I know him," the writer said. "It's great to be part of the anniversary of Captain America and to do so with Batroc! While I was writing this story I was coming up with a list of people with great mustaches in the Marvel Universe; Tony Stark, Batroc, Tyr from "Thor," Maximilian from the 21st century masterwork that is "Dark Avengers: Ares." They could have this team up and basically have a mustachioed league defending the cosmos. I'll pitch that and I'll tell you how it gets on. [Laughs]"