Same Name, Different Story (Part 1): Michael Uslan on Batman: Detective #27'

Tue, September 23rd, 2003 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Arune Singh, Staff Writer

Think fast: what's the significance of "Detective #27?"

"Batman: Detective #27"
It's likely that you all answered the first appearance and origin of Batman, the uber-popular Dark Knight Detective. As one of DC's premier heroes, that issue's name and number is etched in the minds of comic fans everywhere.

But this November, "Detective #27" is taking on a whole new meaning as writer Michael Uslan and artist Peter Snejbjerg bring fans the original graphic novel entitled "Batman: Detective #27." As an "Elseworlds" comic, the DC Comics OGN will allow the creators to present a unique take on the Batman mythos and do something that has never, never, been done in Batman comics before (which we will address later, without spoilers).

CBR News spoke to both creators with Uslan being the first to speak on the graphic novel's premise and Snejbjerg set to check in tomorrow.

"A 75 year long plot unfolds the night of Abraham Lincoln's assassination and culminates in a nightmarish threat against a major northern city in 1939," Uslan told CBR News. "Learning of this 'Doomsday' plot in 1865, Allan Pinkerton, head of both The Pinkerton Detective Agency and The Secret Service, forms a Secret Society of Detectives to uncover the conspiracy and smash it before it erupts. This chain of the world's greatest detectives spans the full 75 years as the case is passed along from one generation to another...from Detective #1 (Allan Pinkerton) to Detective #4 (Teddy Roosevelt) to Detective #27 (Bruce Wayne). The fate of an entire city finally rests in the hands of Bruce Wayne, who is horrified to learn that part of the plot involved the murder of his parents. Now, this first mission of Detective #27 becomes terribly personal."

Turning "Detective #27" into Bruce Wayne's nom de plume is definitely a different approach and Uslan says that the original comic played a big part in more than just the name of this graphic novel. "Some of my favorite books over the years have been those that take a fictional character and interpose him with people who truly existed in the past, involving them in actual historic events," says the producer of the initial Batman films. "'Ragtime,' 'The Alienist,' 'Carter Beats The Devil' and 'Kavalier & Clay' have been inspirations to me in creating a graphic novel that attempts to cover this ground. Additionally, my favorite book of all time is Jack Finney's 'Time And Again,' and 'Detective #27' is a bit of an homage to this incredible story as well.

"If those books were an inspiration to my writing this graphic novel, so was our first 'Batman' movie. Sam Hamm, our screenwriter, working closely with director Tim Burton, came up with an intriguing enhancement to the origin of The Batman. As Jack Napier points the gun at young Bruce Wayne, he recites a haunting, mysterious line, 'Did you ever dance with the devil by the pale moonlight?' Ultimately, this becomes an almost throwaway line, but it resonated with me. What did he really mean by that? What was its true significance? I knew there had to be a great story behind that line. In 'Detective #27,' I finally answered my own burning questions.

"The birth of the project took place very late one night as I was browsing through old Batman comics and a book of old pulp magazine covers, I saw one for 'Operator #5' and one for 'The Black Bat.' Then, I was looking at the cover of one of the two or three most seminal comic books in history...'Detective #27' which introduced Batman in May 1939. It was a 'what if' moment: What if Bruce Wayne never became Batman? He could've become an operative called Detective #27 in a secret society of detectives...making his first appearance in May 1939. How ironic would that have been?

"Using my copy machine, white out, scissors and tape, I created a mock cover of a very pulpish magazine entitled, 'Detective #27.' I then started typing a bare bones outline for what the story could be. What might have happened if, at the exact moment a huge bat was to fly in the open window, it didn't?"

If you talk to Uslan for even a few minutes about "Detective #27," you don't need him to tell you that this project is a labor of love: it's apparent in his voice and vernacular. The scribe explains that he's a long time comic book fan and Batman is, well, the man. "When I was eight years old, I dreamed of writing Batman Comics. That dream came true in the mid-70's while I was a 'Junior Woodchuck' at DC Comics with Bob Rozakis, Jack Harris, Allan Asherman, Carl Gafford, Anthony Tollin, Guy Lillian, Steve Mitchell, and...oh yeah...some kid named Levitz. When the stories were published, I realized my dream had come true. Now, I needed another one. That night, I decided that one day I would produce a dark, serious, movie version of 'Batman' the way Mssrs. Kane, Finger, Robinson, et al. had envisioned him in 1939-40. It would take me fourteen years, but I was fortunate enough to have that dream come true in June 1989. Two dreams in life...both revolving around the character of Batman. Frederic Wertham would have a field day with me, I suppose.

Page 47
"I've been a Batman fanatic since I was three. 'Batman #1' is still the prize of my comic book collection. But I'm also an avid reader of History, a former History major, and one of those nuts who drives his family to every Civil War battlefield in America. Given my choice as to how to spend a vacation, I'd choose to be in a library researching history. One of my favorite professional experiences was producing a mini-series for PBS/American Playhouse that was the historically accurate telling of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, 'Three Sovereigns For Sarah,' starring Vanessa Redgrave and Patrick McGoohan. I have a particular fondness for comic book history, movie history, and New York City history. 'Detective #27' gave me the golden opportunity to do all in one project. Very importantly, this process was a truly collaborative effort with editor Mike Carlin and artist Peter Snejbjerg."

A project like this, with 96 pages to tell Uslan's dream story, would seem full of room to develop Bruce Wayne and his cast of cohorts, but when Uslan begins to explain the sheer number of people in this book- both real and fictional- one begins to understand why space was at a premium. "I don't want to give away too much, but perhaps the primary challenge to making this novel work was to be sure that the use of every real life person in this tale did not feel forced. They had to be an essential part of an intricate story woven over a seventy-five year period. At the same time, I had to make certain that the use of every character from the DCU who intertwined with the real life people also did not feel forced. We hope we have succeeded in this daunting task. Thus, you will be pulled into a story involving Bruce Wayne, Alfred Pennyworth, Allan Pinkerton, Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, Selina Kyle, Robin, Charles Darwin, Gregor Mendel, Hugo Strange, Professor Jonathan Crane, Teddy Roosevelt, Babe Ruth, The Crimson Avenger, Superman, FDR and The Boy Commandos. This took mountains of research and long, hard thinking, and we all strove to rise to the challenge.

"The three most important protagonists in the piece each carry their own emotional baggage and present us with some surprising twists and turns of character. We initially meet Bruce Wayne in 1929 walking out of a 'Zorro' movie with his parents in a scene parallel to the origin sequence in our first 'Batman' film. He is soon sent off to Europe and the Orient to learn and train for ten years, before returning to Gotham in May 1939 as a young man prepared to fulfill his destiny...only destiny has a series of shocking surprises for him. He has all the knowledge and physical skills he will need to evolve into an urban legend and to avenge the murder of his parents, but he lacks the direction, the street-smarts, and the experience. And that's where our other two protagonists come in...

"Selina Kyle is the eternal enigma...is she evil or good? What in her past made her into the woman she is today? What is her secret tie to the Wayne family? What does she know about Alfred that Bruce does not? Inspired by the femme fatales of Will Eisner, our 1939 Catwoman has some ingredients of that era's movie stars...a dash of Katherine Hepburn, a sprinkling of Barbara Stanwyck, and a pinch of Veronica Lake.

"But without a doubt, it is Alfred who is the glue in this centuries-spanning story. And he is far more than simply a 'Dr. Watson' to Bruce's 'Detective #27.' He is butler, friend, confidante, surrogate father, and something totally unexpected to Bruce Wayne over their twenty-two years together. It was critical to the success of this project that Alfred be 'voiced' clearly and intricately...perhaps moreso than he's ever been voiced before in the comics. He is wise, comforting, pragmatic, intelligent...yet also unusually mysterious. He quotes his 'mum' as often as he quotes famous poets and essayists...always having the right words for the right moment. In fact, voicing Alfred was my simplest task. The manner in which I wrote him was completely based on my Dad, who passed away recently. In my own way, this was an opportunity for me to honor him and the way, unlike many dads, he always put his family ahead of his business and all other matters in life."

Without the continuity "restrictions" of the main line Batman comic books, Uslan is free to evolve and develop all the aforementioned characters in any way he wants. But at the same time, if he changes them too much, they become like the "real" characters in name only and he risks alienating fans. "Essentially, I want the characters to be the same people they are in the regular comic books over the years," explains Uslan of his take on the Bat-family. "What is different here is that due to unexpected moments, they are presented with other choices. It's the different choices made that must be explored along with the consequences thereof. If the readers feel these characters could never really be Bruce Wayne, Alfred, Selina Kyle, Robin, etc. then we haven't succeeded. I want them to believe that but for that infamous bat flying through the open window, this could have been Bruce Wayne's life."

If you've seen the preview pages for "Batman: Detective #27" in the latest issue of the "Previews" catalog or looked at the art accompanying this interview, you'll notice something: Bruce Wayne isn't Batman. He doesn't wear the costume and jump off rooftops, but Uslan rejects any claim that Bruce Wayne isn't Batman in this story. " Oh, but he is Batman! He's the same guy...only a turn of events keeps him out of the tights. When he fights, you have to believe he's sure-as-hell The Batman we all know...sans the outfit. When he's being the world's greatest detective, the costume or lack thereof just doesn't matter to the character. And woven throughout the stories are references that the fans will pick up showing what a fine line it is between Bruce having become Detective #27 rather than The Batman. If you look carefully, representing that Batman mythos are The Joker, Hugo Strange, The Catwoman, The Scarecrow, Robin, and Alfred...with references to Commissioner Gordon, The Riddler and Mr. Freeze.

"Yes, there was certainly a momentary hesitancy at DC with the fact that Bruce doesn't appear in his Bat costume. But the story demands it and the story after a while, damn near wrote itself. Paul Levitz and Mike Carlin were totally supportive of this effort from the outset and the title really tells the story. It's not simply 'Detective #27' but 'Batman: Detective #27.'

"I think if readers are willing to try something very different from what they normally read in comics and graphic novels, they hopefully may find themselves engaged by the characters in this tale, intrigued by the mystery of it all, involved in the unfolding plot, interested in the interwoven history and real people, and shocked by the deeply disturbing and dramatic turn of events. Thanks to the detailed, historically accurate, and highly emotional artwork of Peter Snejbjerg, embellished by a stellar coloring job by Lee Loughridge, I believe they'll experience a satisfying, unique read."

The inclusion of famous people like Babe Ruth or Teddy Roosevelt isn't just gratuitous, as Uslan explains, it's central to the plot. "I first looked for an interesting parallel in American history with the impact of the murder of Bruce Wayne's parents. When I chose the Lincoln assassination, the thing began writing itself. Pinkerton...the first head of the Secret Service was America's first master detective!

"Next, what in 1865 could be the basis of a deadly plot that takes 75 years to hatch? Research led me to Gregor Mendel and his experiments in plant hybridization and genetics. That led me to Charles Darwin.

"Next, I jumped my research to the year of Pinkerton's death and was stunned to find that Mendel died the same year...a year when one of my favorite subjects in history, Teddy Roosevelt, was first making a name for himself in NY. Researching TR, I easily found that his favorite restaurant was the famous original 'Delmonicos.' Then I uncovered the obscure fact that the owner of that restaurant, Charles Delmonico, died that same year under "very mysterious circumstances". See what I mean about the story writing itself?

Page 48
"Finally, the Doomsday Plot culminates in 1939...the year 'Detective #27' first appeared on the newsstands and also, my research turned up, the year of The New York World's Fair, FDR, Mayor LaGuardia of NYC, Superman Day at The World's Fair (Yes! Really! It occurred!), Major League Baseball's All-Star Game, and the death of Sigmund Freud. See how easy it was to write this?"

Imagine writing your Batman opus and all the different elements of Batman's sixty plus years of existence that you'd want to include and Uslan's explanation of what he was trying to achieve can be put in better context. "This novel is so much about striving to achieve balance: balance between the history and the fiction; balance between the characters of the DCU and real life people; balance between drama and humor; balance between sequences of 1865 and 1884 with those of 1929 and 1939; balance between detective work scenes and back story with action sequences. The book is written in the structural form of a feature film screenplay in three acts. That structure helped preserve the balances required and helped ensure that, as in every good movie, every set-up had a pay-off and every pay-off had a set-up. This is a very long-winded answer that, no, I didn't want another iota of Bat-mythos references because the balance would have been upset. P.S. Mike Carlin was my wonderful taskmaster about these references, and wisely contained me. He knew there would be a point when too much would pull readers out of the story.

"For example, in the panel in which Bruce is trying to recall Selina Kyle from grade school, he comes up with her wrong last name. The original exchange was:

Bruce: Selina? Uhhh...Selina Rayner?


Selina: Kyle! Selina Kyle!

"Mike was so right to change the 'Kyle Rayner' hidden reference. It would only have been distracting from the emotional impact of that moment in our story."

Though that line may have been removed, "Detectice #27" is chock full of humorous moments, balancing the dark, moody, Batman-esque serious atmosphere, but Uslan says this isn't going to read like some of the latter Batman films. "I hate 'camp,' but love clever humor that emanates from the character's themselves. Stan Lee built the Marvel super-hero empire on his ability to do this in comics. I felt the 'X-Men' movies, in particular, have succeeded in carrying this out on the silver screen.

"As an Edgar Allan Poe fan, I kinda got my jollys out of the two Poe references. As a student of history, my favorite line was Teddy Roosevelt's reaction to the mugging. As a baseball fan, my favorite line was when Bruce tries to introduce himself to Babe Ruth. As a DC comic book fan, my favorite line was when Bruce gets the name of The Secret Society of Detectives wrong. And as a Batman fan, my two favorite lines come when Bruce is about to exit his father's study at a critical moment in his life and when poor Bruce Wayne is praying for a miracle in Yankee Stadium as he is being rushed by about 50 attackers."

But what about that momentous, never before seen Batman moment that you'll only see in "Detective Comics #27?" Well, CBR News isn't spoiling it and Uslan won't spill the beans, but he does confirm that you have never seen this before in the Batman mythos. And once fans discover the secret, they'll know why they'll likely never see it again. "Without getting specific, I've been told this has never been conceived of in the history of Batman and this would not have happened without the total creative involvement and support of Mike Carlin. I have an underlying theme...something I personally feel is an important point to make...based on lots of observation of people I know, though not in real life as dramatic as in our story."

While many fans can think of the ideas they might put into a 96 page graphic novel about their favorite character, actually scripting it comes with its own ups and downs, as Uslan explains to CBR News. "The easiest part, if you love history, is the countless hours researching and allowing a newly uncovered fact or anecdote to lead you to a treasure trove of other facts and anecdotes that then pave the way to create interesting, textured characters involved in intricate turns of event. And the easiest part is working with great creative collaborators in an equal partnership...Peter Snejbjerg and Mike Carlin, in particular.

"The hardest part is waiting to see if the public will hear about it, will be intrigued by it, will read it, and will like it. I hope so. My heart and soul are in this baby."

Ask any creator which superhero they'd like to write and odds are that Batman will be one of the first two that is mentioned. But what is it about the Big Bad Bat that makes him enthralling? "Everyone can identify with Batman," contends Uslan. "He's human. He bleeds when hurt. A kid can believe that if he studies hard, works out, and maybe gets a cool car, he can be this guy. His origin is steeped in deeply human tragedy that not only has a gut-wrenching impact, but crystallizes the basic motivation behind the man. It works on every level. Importantly, it's really the super-villains who maintain the popularity of a comic book hero. The reason Batman has thrived for 65 years is largely due to the fact he has the best rogue's gallery of villains in the history of comics."

Despite the fact that Uslan is fairly well-known among the fan community, there hasn't been a lot for buzz for this book yet, but that doesn't bother the multi-faceted writer- he says it's early for the hype machine to begin on a project of this nature. "It's still early and the next step in the campaign for awareness will be bringing it to the attention of the mainstream press. We are unique. We are trying to do something different from what's appeared before in comics and graphic novels. Like 'Road To Perdition,' it may take some time before people get the word. But we're hoping that as more and more people actually have the chance to read it, word of mouth will spread and spread and that over the first year we're out there, we will find growing support from both our fellow comic fans and the general public. I mean, Jeeez! I have this cool idea for a sequel worked out in my head already that I'd just love to have the opportunity to tell someday!"

Looking at this project, one just can't ignore the artist contributions of Peter Snejbjerg, whose work may be known to fans via more cosmic superhero comics, but that is right at home on this project, contends Uslan. "Having been a huge fan of Peter's 'Starman' work and his 'JSA' issues, I was thrilled when Mike Carlin suggested him for 'Batman: Detective #27.' His sense of design...the emotional impact he conveys to the reader through the faces of his characters...his 'director's' sense of story-telling...all made me certain he was the best choice and could create a moody, evocative graphic novel. But I also felt pity for Peter. We were going for complete historic authenticity in the art, but Peter didn't gripe at all when we inundated him with what must have been over 250 pieces of photo-reference or drawings from history. He slavishly followed them and added his own research to ours. The end result is that every steamship, hansom cab, building, historic setting or personage was accurate to the smallest detail. Take a look at the people walking around in the background of the panels...their clothing is correct period garb and is different in each era if that person was wealthy, middle class, or poor. What a feat by Peter! And thanks to his brilliant design work, though each panel is intricately detailed, it is by no means cluttered nor does it interfere with his story-telling.

"I can't emphasize enough that this was a totally collaborative effort among Peter, Mike Carlin and myself. I think that every idea, suggestion, or dialogue note made by Peter was incorporated in the end product. I especially want to point out the amazing way he choreographed the action sequences. He was certainly our 'Second Unit Director.'"

Though original graphic novels that are initially released as hardcovers can be a hard sell, Uslan says that he's sure the comic itself- the marriage of words and art- will be all the motivation fans need to sample the story. "We will let our work speak for itself," says Uslan confidently. "No one who has read the graphic novel so far has walked away without saying they were both shocked and moved. We could ask for no greater compliment."

Some may like their Batman grim and gritty, some may like a throwback to the more superheroey era of the character, but Uslan truly feels that if you're a Batman fan, you'll enjoy this graphic novel. "Of course, when all is said and done, it's about fun and being entertained. But it was also a serious attempt to bring a novel like 'The Alienist' into the world of the graphic novel, this time mixing real history with the DC Universe and the Batman mythos. In the course of crafting these characters and this story, we have a strong theme that we hope will resonate with readers and allow them to be affected by the experience of having read 'Batman: Detective #27.'"

But there's also another reason to buy this graphic novel, laughs Uslan. "The way I figure it, the last time DC put 'Detective #27' on sale, it wound up being worth $380,000. So $19.95 for this should be a steal!"

Look for an interview with artist Peter Snejbjerg tomorrow on CBR.

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