For writer John Layman, the choice to make his "Detective Comics" run for DC Comics a series of single issue stories was a calculated move. But after wrapping his first major arc on the book, his plans are set to get bigger.
This week's issue #20 ends the "Emperor Penguin" story that the writer and artist Jason Fabok have been building since their first issue. With Oswald Cobblepot out of prison and ready to strike back against his former aide turned crime boss, there's only room for one Penguin in Gotham. Meanwhile, the recent double-sized comic commemorating 900 issues of DC's legacy title has set up a number of intriguing subplots for the series moving forward.
This week, CBR News turns its regular discussion of the Batman's world, THE BAT SIGNAL, towards Layman. Below, the writer explains how the ins and outs of playing in a superhero universe impacted his Emperor Penguin story for the better, why he's sticking with shorter stories for the foreseeable future, what it takes to resurrect the '80s villain Wrath and how many stories from "The 900" will rear their heads in issues to come.
CBR News: John, the story of The 900 was another of your one-shot tales in "Detective Comics," but you've been building more and more long term plots into the book. Poison Ivy's return is a thread from early, but also the re-introduction of the classic Man Bat has to come back around again. Have your plans for the book evolved in that way as you've realized you're going to stick on for a while?
John Layman: Yeah, a little bit. Honestly, I didn't know how this would go, and I sort of went in thinking every issue would be my last, so I wanted to use as many characters as possible. But now it's like things are going well -- I'm on the book for the foreseeable future, and everybody seems happy. I'm going to be a little more ambitious, I guess. I'll have a little more long term planning.
For Man Bat, it feels like you just asked yourself, "Do I need to redo this origin? No, I just need to take the perfect version from 'Batman: The Animated Series' and put it into the New 52."
Not specifically, but that is kind of what happened. He didn't need a big redo; he just needed a reintroduction. And that was cool because Scott Snyder had already done that with Mr. Freeze in the last "Batman Annual," so when it came time for, "Do you want to do that with Man Bat?" Yeah, of course I did. And not only that -- at first I thought it was going to be a one-off, but now I'm working with Man Bat again. He's coming back to "Detective," so the seeds I didn't even realize...well, I kind of knew they were there. But now they'll be playing out in future issues.
On the other side of the classics coin, you've got Mr. Combustible and the Penguin's crew who all got fleshed out a little more. Those characters seemed like strong designs, but kind of cannon fodder at first. Has part of this growth been fleshing out those corners of the book?
I didn't invent Combustible or those other guys. They all come from the Tony Daniel run, so I'm trying to use stuff that's been in the book already and incorporate the other Bat books as well. Penguin had this rogues gallery that didn't play that big a role in Tony Daniel's story, but they seemed cool. Why not flesh them out a bit?
Well, they also help put the Emperor Penguin story into its climax phase, don't they?
Yeah. It ends next issue. That's the end of the arc, which is weird because you pitch something and then come a lot of swerves. There was "Death of the Family," there was the death of Robin and then there was #900. None of that I knew going in, so it's been like jazz. I find out what's coming down the pike, and I improvise. And I'm perfectly fine with that! But now, I find myself at the end of the arc, and you don't know how it's going to be when you're writing it since you've veered off from your main plan so much. But I've got issue #20, and when I sat down to read it, I thought, "This is really strong." I think #20 is the best issue of "Detective" I've done; it's really the vision I had for the Emperor Penguin arc. It's a different journey than I planned, but in the end, it got me to the perfect place I envisioned. It was really satisfying.
Leaving plot talk for after people have read the finale, I am curious as to the themes you've been working here, because there is this undercurrent of class war in comparing Bruce Wayne to a guy who's worked his way up the ladder.
Well, Penguin's the same way. They're both children of Gotham, but Penguin is the ugly stepchild, while Bruce is the guy born with the silver spoon and the perfect teeth. Penguin, on some level, wants to be Bruce Wayne and wants to be the playboy millionaire instead of the hunchback, creepy millionaire. What's cool about the next issue and the end of the arc is that Oswald kind of comes to terms with his role. He was high up on his perch, Emperor Penguin knocked him down, and now this is all about this guy fighting his back to where this place should be.
You've sown some seeds in this story with the Gotham cops from the anniversary issue. Is that an angle you want to develop moving forward?
Well, Strode -- the female cop -- has appeared before, in James Tynion's "Batman" backups. But I'm doing this Wrath story coming up, who's almost the anti-Batman. He's a rich industrialist who has a secret life, but instead of criminals, he hates cops. I wanted to get some cops in there and flesh them out, knowing cops are going to play a role in that next arc. It gives me some characters to play with.
Is Wrath's story the next long form arc?
No. It's funny, because it's three issues, which is pretty short for an arc. But for me, that's like, "Don't waste any time. Get straight to the action." Jason Fabok said, "This is awesome. Why don't we expand it?" But I think there's something to be said for the short story. Who does a story in three issues? It doesn't let you waste any time.
Well, Wrath was a character Mike Barr introduced in a Batman special in the mid-80s, and he's kind of been a well liked Batman villain on the strength of that very short story.
And Tony Bedard did a great story with him, too. Wrath hasn't played a big role in DC, but for New 52, he's great. He's a cool character, and hopefully this will give him some legs. Jason's redesigning him, and he's got a great design sense. He's also a big 3-D nerd, so I've got renderings of Wrathcopters and Wrathmobiles that he keeps sending me. It's all this crazy stuff -- I think it's going to be pretty awesome.
"Detective Comics" #20 is on sale today from DC Comics.