For years, superhero fans have thought of the "Batman Beyond" animated series as the future of the universe of stories that started with the classic "Batman: The Animated Series." And these days, the story of future Batman Terry McGinnis is also stepping in as the next phase of the DC Comics line, with readers who follow comics in digital form getting the first look.
Beginning in early 2012, DC has serialized stories from "Batman Beyond" as its first major digital-original set of adventures. Terry and the gruff older Bruce Wayne continue their fight thanks to the creative team of Adam Beechen and Norm Breyfogle while the entire "Justice League Beyond" team battles Kobra in stories by Derek Fridolfs and Dustin Nguyen. And lately, Superman has returned to the fray in a new ongoing story by JT Krul and Howard Porter. The series regularly rotate new 10-page digital chapters into the DC Comics digital app, and all three are presented in the monthly print anthology "Batman Beyond Unlimited" whose fourth issue is set to hit stores on May 30.
To get inside the growing world that mixes the animated story with characters and ideas from the modern DCU, CBR spoke with the entire writing team of Beechen, Fridolfs, Nguyen and Krul about the world of "Batman Beyond Unlimited" to date. Part one of our special two-part roundtable shows the group's estimation of digital-first's impact on the readership and the challenges of writing ten-page stories. Then, Beechen goes into detail on the next step in his "10,000 Clowns" story where Batman faces down a gang of Jokers led by his girlfriend Dana's brother -- not to mention new revelations about Tim Drake appearing in the series and the next step in his simmering "Undercloud" subplot that brings Batman's confidant Max into conflict with a hidden futuristic hacker.
Let's start with some overarching talk on this world as a whole. The Beyond universe has had a special place in DC's digital moves for a while as the last "Batman Beyond" series was the first title to go same-day digital, and now you guys have led the charge on digital-first publishing. What kinds of expectations or even pressures did being the "proof of concept" crew mean to you all?
Adam Beechen: There's some extra attention on what you're doing because you're part of a "pilot program," as it were, but I just tried to block that out and keep telling the best possible stories I could. We're not doing too much that's radically different in our storytelling to point up the digital aspect of our distribution -- it's been DC's job to pal up the new-ness of how the material is being made available to readers, and DC's done a terrific job of promoting the Beyond books.
Derek Fridolfs: I think it was really about working on the story. At the time that Dustin and I had pitched "Justice League Beyond," it was before digital was even part of the picture, or even before it would be part of three separate stories that would start digitally and then get grouped together in print. And [it was] even before the New 52 relaunch where all those titles would go day-and-date. All you can do is work on presenting the best story and art you can, and let the company figure out the best way to release it.
It's funny, because what started out as unknown territory has now turned into a way of life since the majority of my work is coming from the digital arm of the company -- starting with the "Arkham City" digital exclusive stories, moving into "Arkham Unhinged" and now with "Justice League Beyond."
JT Krul: Actually, I found there to be less pressure, at least on the creative front. Since digital is such new and uncharted territory in this scope, there were no real notions except to tell the best stories we can. I think having the Beyond Universe situated as such in the digital realm really plays to the strengths of the "Beyond Brand" if you will, given the profile that began with the cartoons and continued on in earlier comics. Adam really set things up nicely by writing such a cool, fun book before the New 52 that the buzz surrounding the Beyond books was already very positive. Way to go, Adam!
The schedule for the release of these comics has been vastly different from working on a regular monthly print comic. Not only are you guys doing fewer pages at a sweep -- or at least DC is releasing them that way -- but you're telling stories for your first readership on a more regular basis than the monthly standard. How has that impacted the process of making these comics overall? Obviously, each of you has other gigs he's working on. Has digital-first impacted the basic tenants of your work life positive or negative?
Krul: For me, it hasn't really changed anything in terms of the schedule. I still write the script as 20 page stories, but in terms of execution there has been a transition. I am fully aware that the stories will be experienced and digested in these 10-page chapters, so I structure the story accordingly, making sure that there is a good cliffhanger or end point on all pages 10 as well as pages 20 because digitally (and in print at times) there will be that break.
Also, the structure of the script and pacing has changed as such due to the digital format because now you are dealing with this half-page presentation, which has resulted in more top-half page splashes with follow up panels below. That way, it will read effectively digitally, but also in print. It's cool because now you can have that big moment, then follow it up with a bit more inflection or character or nuance.
Beechen: Like JT has said, it still comes down to producing 20 pages of story per month. On "Batman," we were a few issues ahead when the digital-print plan was revealed, so with our early issues, we occasionally had to go back and alter things a bit so there was a decent cliffhanger at the bottom of page 10. Now, I'm adjusting to thinking I'm writing 10-page chapters. But I still turn them both in at the same time each month, so it hasn't affected my work routine at all.
Fridolfs: I think for something like this, it requires a couple things. One is planning ahead to develop stories and enough lead time for the art to be done without feeling rushed. The other is to have an artist that is quick enough to turn in pages regularly. I think there's a reason that a lot of monthly books have rotating crews on art, because it can be a tough grind to crank out work of any detail on a consistent monthly basis. But Dustin and I have been working together for many years now, monthly, never missing a deadline and usually juggling more than one project for some of that. I'll always remember the month that we inked and co-scripted an issue of "Streets Of Gotham" at the same time that we worked on a special 30-page "Detective Comics" story where Dustin did layouts and I did finishes, all in one month without missing a beat. I think after that, we were ready for anything.
We had enough lead time built up so when "Justice League Beyond" debuted, all the scripts were in and Dustin was done drawing the entire first story arc and was moving onto other multiple projects in the interim. And I was able to join him on some of those, some separate, as well as inking the end of the "Justice League Beyond" arc. The main hurdle in all of this can be the format itself -- adjusting your stories to be told in 10-page "chapters" while still maintaining a larger story arc being told. But again, that comes down to planning, and it's something I've gotten used to doing on "JLB" and "Arkham Unhinged."
DC has released rankings for their top digital books over the past few months to CBR, and the response to this material seems to be very strong, with the Beyond books ranking up there in digital sales with the New 52. Have you had any kind of contact with those readers who are reading the comics digital-first? What's that part of the experience been like overall?
Beechen: All the direct contact I've had with readers has been extremely positive. Readers who were fans of the animated versions of these characters years ago are so grateful to have them back in new adventures, and new readers are finding the stories very accessible, as you can jump in and figure out who's who and what's what pretty easily. The digital-first customers I've encountered have had their anticipation for future chapters heightened even more than if they were reading it in print each month. The shorter chapters allow for even more tension to build, and knowing they're going to get new material twice a month instead of once means the story remains fresh in their mind when they see new pages. It's really working out great.
Krul: Like you might expect given the sales, it's been extremely positive. There is great energy surrounding the fan base for the Beyond Universe and now that DC is giving such a big platform for them, it's drawing in fans of the show who are giving comics a try, as well as traditional fans of comics who are sampling the book in this new format.
Fridolfs: I think that's the most interesting thing out of all of this, is that digital is a way to reach out to new as well as existing readers. It's attractive for a younger audience that is watching the "Batman Beyond" show for the first time in repeats on the Hub, as well as those that remember watching it originally 15 years ago and are coming back to it in comics. Same goes for the audience that plays the "Arkham" games, that is used to being entertained digitally and are reading the comics the same way. And there's the older fans that might be giving digital a try, that want to read the Beyond stories digitally first rather than to wait for it to be printed. So we're getting fans of all types trying these and hopefully enjoying them. The show has a hardcore group of fans so it's fun to hear from them. And it's been very rewarding knowing that are stories are doing well digitally as well as going into reprints at the comic shops.
On the creative end, how has that format changed the writing of these stories? In the past, Adam told me that he tried to make the "Beyond" comic match a structure somewhat similar to the three acts of an animated episode. Have you guys found that telling these stories in weekly installments have brought you to view different story turns as "commercial breaks"?
Fridolfs: Writing in 10-page "chapters" has been an interesting process. There's a larger story arc at play, but you also have to make each of these chapters build and lead into the next. I'm definitely always thinking of the show when writing these. Some have more action than others, and some get more story across by taking a break and having the characters talk and get into their backstories. But they're all playing towards the goal of the larger story being told.
Beechen: Yes, like I mentioned before, I've had to recondition myself to remember that I have to build to a chapter break every ten pages. It's been an adjustment, but I feel like it's smoothing out and will soon become second nature.
Krul: Yeah, like I said, you are totally aware of that extra break after page 10 and have to make sure to leave the reader wanting more at that point. While I am still outlining out the story, I find myself thinking a bit more about how the issues will break down and what those page 10 and page 20 moments will be. It requires a little more planning, but it also helps with pacing. It's funny -- I remember making the adjustment from 22-page stories to 20-page stories when that format switch was made, and I found it to be rather tricky. Losing those two pages really changed the dynamic, and it was a bit awkward at first. With the 10-page digital formats, it's actually been a positive, helping with structure and how I look at the overall story.
What's the group dynamic been like as you all chart out different corners of the same universe with sometimes the same characters? Are there ways in which you're working together on these stories, or has everything pretty much stayed in its own corner for now?
Fridolfs: As of now, Dustin and I have been sort of in our own corner. Adam started it all when "Batman Beyond" launched in print. And when Dustin and I were working on "JLB," we were in our own contained area not feeling any restriction for the stories we wanted to tell. "Superman Beyond" was the last to join the trio, so I'm sure JT was able to see what we all were doing up to that point. But yeah, there's a greater Beyond universe we're all working in. But I think we've all been fine working on each of our sections.
Beechen: Editorial has been terrific about keeping me apprised of what's going to be going on with the Beyond versions of Superman and the Justice League. If I see something that conflicts with a plan I have, or a way to tie something in that another book is doing in some small way, it's very easy for me to communicate with the editors and the other creators so we can work out how everything can flow smoothly together. Truthfully, we haven't needed to do it all that much yet, as we've all been busy establishing our stories on our own, but as we go along, I'm sure we'll find fun ways to cross paths more often than we already have.
Krul: When I came in for "Superman Beyond," both "Batman Beyond" and "JL Beyond" were already up and running, so I benefited from being able to see what Adam, Dustin, and Derek were doing. Editorial is really good about keeping things on track and in sync, but we've all been able to talk about the books and what's happening. For now, "Superman Beyond" is playing in its own corner, but I could totally see some big story branching out of all three books. It'd be cool.
So let's get into the specific story beats, starting with Adam! "Batman Beyond" already had a number of plot threads rolling in its last ongoing series, but you opened with some very new story turns involving the Jokerz. In what ways was it important for you to reintroduce the world of Batman Beyond right out the gate, and were your overarching ideas for the series changed much when it came to this new run?
Beechen: My ideas weren't changed at all, and our editor, Jim Chadwick, was very supportive of us picking up right where we left off with the last monthly series. As far as kicking off with a Jokerz story that's rooted in the "Batman Beyond" universe, that's a happy accident. The "10,000 Clowns" story has been in the works since the first issue of the "Hush Beyond" miniseries (in which Terry mentions breaking up a "weird convention of out-of-town Jokerz"), and it happened to be coming to a head right when the digital series launched. It gives us a great opportunity to explain the world of the series to fans that are new to it, as well as to give longtime fans more of the world they came to know as viewers of the animated series.
As always with the Beyond world, you're really writing the story of two Batmen. What would you say are the biggest personal challenges for both Terry and Bruce in this new year of the series?
Beechen: For Terry, it's reconciling his superhero life with his personal life. Dana's pretty much cut him loose over his flaky behavior -- always disappearing when she either needs him or they have plans. He knows he's not spending enough time with his mother and brother, either. Terry's starting to think about what he wants and needs his priorities to be going forward in life. I don't think he has the same burning vengeance motor that drove Bruce for so many decades, and still drives him in many ways. For the first little while, for Terry, putting on the costume, flying, using gadgets and punching bad guys was a lot of fun. But does Terry picture himself doing this at the age of thirty? Fifty? For Bruce, his big personal challenge in the first year of the series is a lot more immediate, and that's all I'm going to say about that.
Like in the past, you've been working to find a good balance between the animated continuity and elements from the comic -- reference to Barbara Gordon's paralysis sticks out most recently. How will those elements grow now that you're introducing Tim Drake as the Wayne computer expert and Lucius Fox, Jr. to the mix?
Beechen: Tim in particular will play a major role going forward, and Lucius will probably have his moments as well. Like you say, it's a bit of a high-wire act, wanting to give longtime fans the old villains they remember from the animated series, wanting to give longtime Batman comics fans nuggets from the comics' past, and wanting to give all of the readers, including ones brand new to Batman in any way, easy-to-digest explanatory material that still expands and deepens the mix. I get a lot of requests for villains to appear, whether they're from the cartoon or the comics, and all I can say is, "All in good time." The great thing about the Beyond Universe is that it was set up so beautifully in the cartoon, but so much of it was left unexplored. I know Norm Breyfogle and I, Dustin and Derek, and JT and Howard, are anxious to do that exploring, and all kinds of characters, new and old, will pop up as an organic result of that exploration.
Of course, the major thread running through the book right now is the story of Dana's Joker brother Douglas and his schemes to be the top clown in Gotham. While Terry has faced down a lot of Jokerz over the course of the franchise, it seems he's never had a real personal enemy amongst those gangs. Was giving him his own Clown Prince to clash with part of the inspiration here?
Beechen: Absolutely. In my opinion, you can't do a Batman story without a Joker, and the challenge has been to bring a Joker-worthy villain into the story without making it the Joker himself, because that was already done brilliantly as part of the animated series. I think we've found an interesting angle from which to think about the Jokerz, and make them genuinely scary in their own way, and legitimate threats. As for Doug wanting to be the "top clown in Gotham," he already is. The question is, what's he going to do, now that he's there. And that's what "10,000 Clowns" is all about.
The one storyline readers have been following for a while on its own is Terry's friend Max's dealings with mysterious hacker collective Undercloud. Lately, we've been seeing Max get closer and closer to spilling the beans. How and when will this story thread wind in with everything else happening to Batman?
Beechen: "Undercloud" is the next major story arc after "10,000 Clowns." Max isn't around for the action of "10,000 Clowns," and while we get ominous hints why along the way, we don't get the actual answer until the "Undercloud" arc starts moving. I finished writing "10,000 Clowns" last week (digital chapters 17 and 18), and now I'm fleshing out the general ideas I have for "Undercloud," turning them into chapters, figuring out what goes where. I came up with a plot twist two days ago that really made me smile, and I think readers will get a big kick out of it.
For readers familiar with the Jozerz, "10,000 Clowns" certainly carries an ominous vibe. What part of this arc have you been most been wanting to tell and why?
Beechen: For me, it hasn't been so much any individual moment -- although there are a couple with Bruce in particular that are awesome -- as it has been slowly developing Doug into a serious, meaningful opponent to Batman...any Batman. He's absolutely, totally, brutally insane, but he's so smart. He's going to expose weaknesses Batman didn't even realize he had, and that's going to terrify Terry and Bruce. My hope is that, by the end of the storyline, Doug can stand as a worthy addition to Batman's roster of foes, past, present or future.
One of the unique elements of the last "Batman Beyond" series was the occasional "Legends of the Dark Knight" one-shot. Will that aspect of the series continue moving forward?
Beechen: Yes. The "Legends" stories will continue to be inserted between longer arcs as a way for new readers to jump in, and as a chance for us to get to know supporting characters a little more, or shine a light on Batman or what Batman means from an unexpected source. Our first such story for "Batman Beyond Unlimited" comes in digital chapters seven and eight, and takes a look at how Terry came to be Batman, but in such a way that I don't think many readers or viewers ever considered. Since the last monthly started, I knew I wanted to re-tell Terry's "origin" for new readers and to remind readers who have come in since the animated series premiered, but I didn't want it to be a straight re-telling. I wanted the story to come at it from a new angle, enhance the story somehow, provide some new information, all without changing the facts one bit. And boy, does it. Norm Breyfogle has drawn it absolutely beautifully, and I can't wait for the sound of jaws hitting floors everywhere when readers get to the last panel of digital chapter eight!
Stay tuned tomorrow for more on the stories of "Justice League Beyond" and "Superman Beyond"!