REVIEW: Detective Comics #879

I almost never picked up the first issue of Scott Snyder’s run on Detective  Comics.  It arrived at a period when I was trying to trim down my monthly comic buying habits, and I had made myself a strict statement of intent that the only Batman comics I needed to be reading where whatever ones Grant Morrison happened to be writing.  His jawdropping, landmark run with the character is going to be looked back on one day as one of the all-time greats, and I felt that it gave me all I could possibly need as a Batman comic fan.  But after reading all the great reviews for Snyder and artist Jock’s debut on the title, I grudgingly decided to give it a go, just for one issue.

I’m glad I did: it’s become one of my most anticipated titles each month ever since, and on weeks when their respective scheduling means I can pick up both Snyder’s Detective Comics and Morrison’s Batman Inc, as big of a Morrison fan as I am, I must admit Detective gets read first.

Even more than Morrison did on his Batman & Robin run, Snyder truly gets into the psyche of Dick Grayson, and lays out what makes him unique, and different from Bruce Wayne, as Batman.  And more than that, over the course of his run he has made a potent statement about Gotham itself, with his first arc, “Black Mirror”, and its follow-up, “Hungry City”, both showing the city as almost a living entity, shifting  and changing to reflect the worst nightmares of its current protector.  I truly believe that, years from now, even once Bruce Wayne is long re-established as the sole Batman and the idea of Dick Grayson wearing the cowl has become an obscure, almost-forgotten historical curio, the strength of this story will be enough for it to operate outside of current continuity and have a healthy life in the graphic novel market.

But as much as I’ve enjoyed Snyder and Jock’s main storyline of Dick Grayson’s trials as the new Batman, I think the subplot involving Commissioner Gordon’s difficult reunion with his (literal) psychopath son James, Jr has been even better.  It began as the back-up story for the series, and when DC canned those, Snyder shifted things around  so that every fourth issue of the title would become a full-length Gordon story.  Issue #875, “Lost Boys”, was the first of these Gordon spotlight issues, and it still stands as the single best issue of this entire run, and quite possibly Snyder’s finest hour in any of his comics thus far.  Issue #879, “Skeleton Key” (after 4 paragraphs, he finally gets to reviewing the issue!), doesn’t quite top that masterpiece of comics storytelling, but is at least the best issue of Detective Comics SINCE #875.

A big part of what makes “Skeleton Key” – and the rest of this Gordon subplot – so brilliant is the artwork of Francesco Francavilla.  Jock’s interiors in the “A-story” have been great too, and rightly celebrated, but in my personal opinion Francavilla’s work might be even better.  Of course, it’s two different styles for two different stories: the kinetic, exciting layouts of Jock’s artwork reflects the high-octane acrobatics of Dick Grayson as Batman.  This Gordon story, however, owes more to the psychological crime thriller, even horror, and that is reflected in Francavilla’s heavy shadows and claustrophobic panel construction.

But perhaps more than his crisp, noir-tinged artwork, it’s Francavilla’s colors that really set the tone of his work here.  The use of bright neon pink, purple, orange, yellow and red (especially red, lots and lots of red) might initially be a bit overwhelming for some.  It reminds me of the original coloring for Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke.  I know Bolland wasn’t a fan of that look, and had it recolored in more muted tones for the recent hardcover re-release, but I was always a fan of those original colors and the nightmarish funhouse vibe it gave the story, making it feel like a bad acid trip.  The word “nightmarish” also springs to mind for the effect it has on the story here, with Francavilla plunging us into a world that feels sinister and off-kilter.

Of course, much credit must also go to the writing  of Scott Snyder.  Here is a Batman comic where Batman doesn’t once appear, and thanks to the stellar characterisation of Gordon, we don’t miss him.  Jim Gordon is a character I’ve long been fond of.  As much as Batman: Year One is hailed as one of the definitive Batman stories, I think at it’s core it’s really a Gordon story.  Even in the films, as talented as Christian Bale is, I think Gary Oldman’s better.  Here, Snyder engages in something he has shown a skill for: opening up unexplored pockets of history and exploring how they impact on the present.  In Gordon’s case, he has brought back the long-absent James, Jr – seen as an infant in Year One, and rarely since then – as a malevolent figure.  For a while, the menace of the character came from us not knowing his true motives, and whether his words could be taken at face value.  After last month confirmed our suspicions about James, Jr’s true nature, here we see Gordon come to that same realisation.

The actual main narrative development of the issue is probably the weakest aspect of the comic.  When we discover what James, Jr’s plans are, it feels to much like a supervillain’s evil scheme.  A really clever evil scheme, it must be said, but part of what made James, Jr such an unnerving presence is that he didn’t feel like just another larger-than-life  supervillain.  He was a monster that was a lot more uncomfortably close-to-home than that, and as such Gordon – and by extension, us – didn’t know quite how to react to him.  By going from something not quite tangible to being “the villain”, the obvious solution becoms “flip on the Bat-Signal and call in Batman.”

No, the real strength and power in Snyder’s writing here comes in the smaller moments.  Perhaps most potently of all, near the end – once he learns the full extent of his son’s darkness and is rushing to stop him – Gordon is haunted by fragmented images of his son as a smiling, innocent child, a child that is now long gone.  If the overarching story of Snyder’s run is about Gotham acting as a “black mirror”, the corruption of his son is the ghoulish reflection Gordon sees staring back at him.  This is a story about parents and their children, and as such a large chunk of the issue depicts the relationship between Gordon and Barbara.  Snyder doesn’t hammer us over the head with it, a lot is left unspoken, but the absolute trust, faith and love the two have for one another is clear.  As the ever-worsening grimness of the James, Jr story plays out, this more positive relationship for Gordon serves as a beacon of light, however dim.

Oh, and The Joker shows up too.  The Joker is probably my favorite character in comics, if not all fiction, so I always love seeing how new writers and artists will handle him.  Here, hidden behind a Hannibal Lecter style mask for the entirety of his appearance, inhuman eyes bulging out of the narrow slits, he fits in effortlessly with Francavilla’s neon-noir horror vibe.  His words (lettered by Jared K Fletcher in their own distinct, ragged font, heightening the aforementioned “inhuman” effect) are an elaborate mind-game for his captors in Arkham, but take on a whole new significance when juxtaposed against the Gordon family drama: “It’s a story about LOVE!  LOVE!  LOVE!”  I’m of the opinion that every story becomes that little bit better if you put The Joker in it (The King’s Speech would surely have won even more Oscars if the Clown Prince of Crime went on a killing spree in the third act), and so I can’t wait to see how he works into the narrative in the remaining issues.

If you’ve not been reading Detective Comics these past few months, you’ve been missing out.  It’s a shame that we’re now entering the endgame of this  particular saga, with the DC Relaunch in September drawing ever closer.  The good news is that Snyder will be jumping over to Batman #1 with the arrival of the New 52, and so I’m pretty sure that title is in good hands.

The Standard: From Script to Page

Following on from a recent interview I conducted with Jonathan Rector, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at the creative process behind a comic book page, and how it goes from words in a script to a completed page.  For this example, I’m using page 7 of The Standard #1.  Here is the original page of script I wrote:

PAGE SEVEN (4 panels)

Panel 1.  The daytime skyline of Sky City, a towering, futuristic metropolis densely packed with skyscrapers.

CAP:                                       SKY CITY.

CAP:                                       30 YEARS AGO.

Panel 2.  The same skyline, but now a giant robot has emerged from behind it, taller than all the skyscrapers.  A radio transmission emits from the robot, though from outside the speaker cannot be seen.


Panel 3.  Inside the control panel of the giant robot, a bald man with a curly moustache, dressed up like your classic mad scientist – Zachary Zarthos – prances around gleefully, hooked up to a headset as he broadcasts his rants.  A young woman – Caroline Cole – lies tied up on the floor nearby.


CAROLINE:                              OH, HELP!  SOMEBODY SAVE ME!


Panel 4.  High in the sky, so high the head of the robot only pops up at the bottom of the panel, The Standard and his sidekick – Fabu-Lad – hover in the air, looking down at their opponent.



And here was the original thumbnail Jon drew up based on his interpretation of the script (with an added rough character design of Zarthos):

Once this was approved, it was followed up by the proper page of art itself, pencilled and digitally inked by Jon:

The main change between the thumbnail and the final image is that, in the last panel, I requested a tighter shot on the robot, to give us a better look at The Standard and Fabu-Lad.

Here is a first look at this page, as colored by the team of colorist Ray Dillon and flatter Mo James:

Jonathan Rector’s art is gorgeous, so much so that I was convinced for some time that the book was so good black-and-white that it didn’t need color.  I sitl think that the art was strong enough to have supported black-and-white, but still, there’s no denying that the addition of color adds a whole other level to the visuals.

And all that’s left is the addition of Kel Nuttall’s lettering, giving us, revealed for the first time, the completed page 7 of The Standard #1:

Good lettering is such an essential component to the success of the book.  The way the words are laid out help shape the page, and help to define tone and pace.  Kel has done an exemplary job throughout the comic’s development, with this page but one of numerous examples.

Hope you enjoyed the look at the development of a page, as well as the sneak peek at a page of art not included in the preview.  Be sure to check out next week, when I hope to have info on the release of The Standard #1!

The Creative Team in Comics

In comics, unless you’re one of these obnoxiously talented people who can do everything, odds are you’re working as part of a creative team.  Steven Forbes has spent the past couple of Bolts & Nuts columns over at Comix Tribe talking about the core components of the creative team – the writer, the penciller, the inker, the colorist, the letterer, the editor – and the contributions each of them make.  So I added my own observations on the roles each play in the creative process.

I think that, from an outside perspective, an editor’s role seems clearer in the Big Two. If you’re an editor for the Batman line of books in DC, or – surely the most nightmarish, Herculean of tasks – the editor of the X-books for Marvel, your job involves having an encyclopedic knowledge of continuity, keeping on top of plot turns and character beats that may clash with something that happened in the past, and making sure the chronology between various books in the line plays out without too much overlapping and confusion. You’re overseeing multiple books, trying to make sure they all stay afloat without stepping on each other’s toes, and you’re acting as a kind of custodian for decades of comic history.

As such, I think that’s what people associate comic editors with, rather than being part of the core creative team of all comics of every creed. But I speak from experience when I say an editor is essential, and a part of the creative team I would not do without, for all the reasons Steven mentions in his column.

As for the rest of the creative team, it continues to impress me just how cumulative and complimentary a process it all is. The penciller’s job is to make the writer look better, taking the panel descriptions – just a collection of words – and turning it into a magnificent image. Then the inker’s job is to make the penciller look better, picking out the lines that will draw out the strengths of the art and emphasis the right aspects of the page. Then the colorist’s job is to make the inker look better, balancing out the inker’s shading and linework with splashes of color that give the whole thing depth and vibrancy. Then the letterer’s job is to make the art team look better, positioning bubbles and captions in ways that lead the eye and bring out the hot spots of the panel.

It’s a very collaborative, almost symbiotic process, so much so that credit is not always placed where its due. A critic may praise the genius of a penciller for what is actually a triumph of color, or they may give kudos to a writer for the emotion he wrings out of a silent beat when in fact that was the contribution of the penciller. But I think that’s a sign of the best comics, when every person involved in its creation – each with their individual skills and contributions – meld together into a singular creative voice.

Also, I think it’s amazing how the internet age has allowed people from all over the world to collaborate so intimitely, often without ever meeting face-to-face. Imagine how difficult this woul have been even a couple of decades ago.  For someone like me, a writer living in Glasgow, Scotland, the internet has been a true blessing in this regard.

Which brings me to the next phase of this lengthy ramble.  Now that I’ve talked generally about what each aspect of the team brings to a comic, I thought I’d talk a little bit about my communications with various aspects of the creative team.

First up: the editor. The editor is often the first pair of eyes to lock on your script after you’ve finished your first draft. He’s the person that decides if it’s ready to go ahead to the other members of the creative team, and ultimately, to the reading audience. It is the comic book equivalent of the gatekeeper at the door, stopping you from leaving your house with your pants around your ankles.

Now, when I was young, I took piano lessons, and I had a great teacher. This teacher would pick apart every little mistake I made, judge my playing under the highest level of scrutiny, so much so that at times I got frustrated. But she’d always say that she was a hard taskmaster, but she was a lot stricter than any examiner would be. And she was right. By the time I got to my actual exams for moving up the Grades, it was a cake-walk in comparison to the standards I had to maintain in lessons.

And I think that’s what’s great about Steven Forbes, the editor I’ve been working with all through the creative process of The Standard. He is a hard taskmaster, and is not easily pleased. He judges a story a lot more harshly than any reader, picking apart any logic holes and mistakes. This results in a whole lot of notes and required fixes, but it also means that when he finally deems that you’ve got it right, YOU’VE GOT IT RIGHT.

Case in point: one of the scripts I wrote, I was really happy with. I was thinking to myself how good it was – action-packed, dramatic – and that Steve was going to LOVE it. So imagine my shock when he got back to me, and not only did he not love it, he thought it was bad, that it had core structural flaws. He said that surface changes wouldn’t be enough here, I’d have to pretty much go back to the drawing board.

I wrote a lengthy e-mail back to him pleading my case, explaining all the ways I thought he was wrong and how my story wasn’t as bad as he thought it was. I adamantly disagreed with him, and to this day I’m still quite fond of that original script. But here’s the important bit. Despite the fact that I personally thought he was wrong, I still trusted his judgement enough to take his advice and go back to the drawing board with the script anyway.

What’s crucial about this? You don’t just want an editor who likes the exact same things you do, and sees things the same way you do. Then you might as well just be cloning yourself and acting as your own editor. You’ve hired an editor to be someone who can stand outside you and your story, and over an outside, objective perspective on it. And even if you don’t agree with their conclusions, if you hired them to do the job you should trust they’re doing it right.

And here’s the other sign of a good editor: Steven told me I needed to go back to the drawing board, but he didn’t tell me what to replace the bad stuff with. He could easily have just said, “Right, take out this page, and put this and this and this in there instead, then have that character do this, and this character do that.” He’s a good enough writer that he COULD have done the fix himself. And perhaps, in certain emergency cases, such a hands-on approach is necessary. But he respected my status as the writer and that this was my story enough for me to come up with my own solution to the problem.

So anyway, I start the drastic redraft, following Steve’s advice despite not agreeing with it, and telling myself that I’d only go ahead with this restructuring if the final product was better than the initial draft. And it was. Dramatically so. I’ll admit it. By taking some stuff out, and putting other elements in, the script went from good to great (Steve would probably view it as “from awful to adequate”), and put the story on a whole other level.

Other times, the editing contribution has simply been fixing wonky lines and tightening up elements here and there. But whether the changes are large or small, going through an editor is always an essential part of the process. It lets you know your script is ready, that it reads well to someone other than yourself.

And Steven has been incredibly supportive through every aspect of my first comics project, advising me on every step of the process, looking over art. I’m incredibly grateful for his contribution, and I know the comic probably wouldn’t have been made without him.

Next up: the artist! I think when an artist gets involved in your project is when it starts to become real. When someone starts turning your words into images, your comic stops being something abstract, and starts to take shape before your eyes.

To any new or aspiring comic book writers reading, I can’t tell you what a thrill it is to put out an ad, and have all the replies start filtering into your inbox. I had over a hundred artists contact me in response to my first ad. It was a bit overwhelming: all these people want to work with me! Of course, some were more suitable than others, and I narrowed it down to my top choices. But here’s something I should mention, something I think everyone should do: I took the time to personally reply to every ad and thank each artist for submitting, even if it was just to tell them they weren’t right for the project. As creative types, we’re all going to experience the frustration of submitting work and never getting a reply, so we all know how much any acknowledgement is appreciated. I certainly know I’d like to hear back from anyone I submitted work to, even if it was just to say, “no thanks”.

I’d like to think I was able to end on good terms with everyone that contacted me. And now I have a bunch of artists in my mind that I could approach for future projects. But from the wave of replies, I was able to find the kind of people where I could picture The Standard drawn by them, and I got chills at the prospect.

But this is one of the things that makes an artist flaking so frustrating and disheartening. You start to imagine your story through their eyes, see your characters how they design them, and then when you lose them, you lose that vision of the project too, and it’s back to square one. The first artist I hired submitted a killer sample page, which got him the job. He submitted a couple of character designs… then vanished. I’d try contacting him repeatedly to no avail, then maybe once every few weeks he’d reply with “Oh hey, I’m just going out, I’ll send a reply when I get back tonight.” Then I’d not hear from him for another few weeks.

This went on for several months, until finally I pulled the plug and dropped him from the project. The artist got back to me saying that he’d had a lot of difficulties in his personal life, and I don’t doubt him, but at the same time I believe COMMUNICATION is key. If life is getting in the way and you can’t produce, TELL YOUR COLLABORATORS. Don’t leave them in the dark.

This is something I find baffling. So many artists (indeed, many people of all disciplines within the comic industry) talk about how hard it is to climb the ladder and establish yourself. But surely a big part of building your reputation would be, when you DO get paying work, actually DO it?

The next artist I went to was polite, courteous, totally professional… but it was clear it was a business transaction. And that’s totally fine. Not every work-for-hire gig is going to invoke deep passion and personal belief in the project. He also submitted character designs and a sample page, got as far as thumbnails, but then another project he had been finishing up suddenly got a lot bigger. Now this is the difference: he immediately contacted me and laid out the situation, saying I could either wait a few months for him to finish, or I could find another artist – and the sample page and character designs would be free of charge. I opted for the latter option, and we ended on good terms. I’d happily hire the guy for another project, schedules permitting.

It was a case of third time’s a charm, however. I was feeling down on the whole project after two false starts, and wondered if I’d ever get it off the ground. But then Steven put me in contact with artist Jonathan Rector (another great thing an editor can provide – contacts!), and it was a perfect match. This might sound cheesy, but I very quickly got the sense that this was the artist who was always meant for this project.

His style of art was just a perfect match for The Standard, even moreso than my previous artists. And here’s the biggie: you got the sense that he BELIEVED in the project. He was the first artist to read the script and seem genuinely excited about working on it, popping with ideas and ways to add to what I had. The process of character design was so much more in-depth and collaborative here, as we brainstormed and through back and forth ideas. There was a total rapport there, it felt like a partnership.

The thumbnails were similarly collaborative, with Jon often working out multiple approaches to the same page – one adhering strictly to my instructions in the script, the other with him doing more of his own thing. And almost invariably, his way was better. But it was good being a part of that process – again, it felt like a partnership.

And then came the point when I started getting the interior pages. Another note to any aspiring comic writers: it is so exciting opening e-mails in your inbox, and finding your pages of script turned into works of art. You’re seeing your story come to life. And not just seeing the images you’ve had in your head for weeks, months and years perfectly recreated, but seeing someone take that image, and make it BETTER. It’s an incredible dynamic.

I feel like I’ve perhaps been spoiled in having an artist as good as Jon on my first project, as we’ve become friends. I’ll usually talk to him a couple of times a week. He’ll show me other art he’s working on and I’ll send him other scripts I’m working on. And he’s engaged and excited about every aspect of The Standard. It feels like it’s his baby as much as it is mine.

Jon inks his pencils, so I can’t talk about any communications with inkers from experience.

Similarly, I’ve only recently added a colorist to the book, so I can’t talk at length about my dealings in this field, other than to say I’m really happy to have someone as talented as I do onboard the project fulfilling this role.

Now, with lettering, in the very early stages of development I foolishly thought I could learn my own lettering and do this aspect of the comic. “It’s just lettering, right?” After a few tutorials on the subject put me in the fetal position curled up in a ball on the floor, I realised I needed to hire someone that knew who they were doing. I ended up with Kel Nuttall, who is a lettering machine. I was floored by the quality of stuff he was providing, and the speed at which he was doing it. The lettering added a whole new dimension to the book, really complimented the art and brought out the best in it. It was a major contribution, and I tried to make sure Kel knew how much that contribution was appreciated.

Really, I find I’m really fortunate with the people I’m working with. They’re all such incredibly talented people, that I’ve never felt like I’m just settling for. If I had my pick of any of the biggest names in comics in each of the respective fields, I’d sooner keep everyone in their present roles. I feel like this is the ideal lineup for The Standard, the dream team. And these are all people I’d want to work with on other projects in the future.