Alan Grant on Batman and Beyond
Alan Grant was born in Bristol, England, in 1949. His family moved to Scotland when he was just one, and Grant has been Scottish ever since. He was expelled from school for smoking in the senior boys’ toilets and expelled from university for being unable, or unwilling, to learn Hebrew (he was reading Divinity). He’s been fired from almost every job he ever had—which has included bank teller, local government accounts assistant, magazine journalist, bus conductor, and agricultural laborer. He was almost 30 before he discovered a talent for writing, and since then, he has written Batman, Superman, Incredible Hulk, L.E.G.I.O.N. 89, Lobo, The Demon, X-Men, Silver Surfer, Dr Who, The Terminator, Judge Dredd, Strontium Dog, RoboHunter, The Bogie Man, Dominator, Evil Ernie, and dozens of other characters in comics, books, and movies.
When did you first begin reading comic books?
My grandmother was housebound, confined to a wheelchair. She began teaching me to read and write when I was three, using DC Thomson comics like The Beano and The Dandy as her textbooks. I’ve been hooked on comics ever since and can’t remember any period in my life when I didn’t read comics of some description; humor comics as a kid, classics and superheroes as a teenager, Robert Crumb and underground comics in my 20s…
In what ways has the superhero concept changed and/or evolved since then, in your view?
It’s hard for me to generalize about this. As a kid, I didn’t really like Superman or Wonder Woman or Green Lantern, because even at the age of 8 or 9, I could see that concepts like “the invisible plane,” “the lasso of truth,” kryptonite, and [weakness to] the color yellow were absurd. I was much more drawn to Batman, a self-made hero. He had no need for the gimmicky origins of the superheroes; he did something every human could do, reacted to evil by standing up and fighting it. Even though the stories of the ’50s constantly pitted him against ridiculous villains, there was something special about Batman.
In the early ’60s, Stan Lee made Marvel’s new line, Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, the Avengers, etc., into something totally different: His heroes had real problems, aspects of the real world were creeping into the made-up worlds of comics. Note, however, that the origins were as ridiculous as ever—being bitten by a radioactive spider, ingesting gamma rays, bathing in cosmic radiation. A decade later, Denny O’Neil was writing about an alcoholic Iron Man, and a sidekick [Green Arrow’s Speedy] addicted to heroin. Comics need a healthy dose of reality, or they vanish up their own kryptonite-powered asses.
Today’s superhero stories are much better, more complex, more intelligent…but at the end of the day, Superman still falls down when a wee green rock is flashed at him; Wonder Woman still has magic bracelets that deflect bullets. Only Batman still stands, head and shoulders above all of the others, a true human hero. Pity he’s fictional, really.
What led you to pursue a career within the industry as a writer, initially? How did you break into the industry?
I always wanted to be an artist but had a serious handicap in that I couldn’t draw. I trained as an editor with DC Thomson (on women’s romantic fiction) in the late 1960s, and when I went to London to work for IPC (again on women’s fiction titles), I quickly realized I could write better stories. So I left and went freelance and enjoyed a short but successful career as a writer of teenage romantic fiction, before the nature of the stories drove me to distraction.
A couple of years were spent in a wilderness. Then in the late ’70s, when John Wagner and Pat Mills were planning 2000AD, they asked me to take over their commitment to write weekly Tarzan comics for the European market. (I’d known both since my days with Thomson). A year or so on Tarzan, and a couple of attempts at short stories for the short-lived Starlord comic, brought me to London to meet the editor of 2000AD. He offered me a staff job on the spot, and I accepted.
I’ve always had a problem with authority, and it wasn’t long before I was at loggerheads with some senior figures. I left before a bad situation could become worse, and soon began cowriting Judge Dredd, Strontium Dog, and RoboHunter with John Wagner (we were sharing a house at the time and discovered that we could work quickly and humorously with each other). It was the start of a 10-year partnership, which we still maintain to some extent—we cowrote the recent Bogie Man in Return to Casablanca.
In what ways did British comics differ from North American comic books, generally?
The major differences are that U.K. comics are generally weekly, while U.S. titles are monthly; a U.K. episode is five or six pages, while its U.S. counterpart is 22 pages; and U.K. comics are commonly anthologies featuring five or six stories, while U.S. comics tend to feature only one character or team.
A huge variety of comics was available in both countries: Though the USA specialized in superhero comics, also available were cowboy comics, romances, comedies like Archie and his chums. In Britain, there were sports anthologies (Tiger), war anthologies (Battle), science-fiction anthologies (2000AD).
Historically, however, the culture of both countries treated comics as trash rather than a unique literary genre.
When you first began working on Judge Dredd, the industry (and the medium) must have seemed to you to be very open to new ideas. Was this the case for you?
Yes, the industry was very open to new ideas. Basically, the publisher wanted anything that would sell, the editor wanted anything that would look cool, and the writer and artist wanted something they’d enjoy working on. We were left pretty much to our own devices, with only the occasional story or character suggestion from the editors.
When I began writing Batman, around 1987, editor Denny O’Neil’s policy was to leave me to do what I wanted with the character, and to leave artist Norm Breyfogle to depict it as he saw fit. I was able to bring a flood of new ideas to superhero comics, weird U.K. ideas, that U.S. readers had never seen before. An artist like Norm Breyfogle was able to go to town.
I suspect the comics biz is in a worse state now. Because of editors’ increasing reluctance to read submissions, coupled with a dread of being sued for plagiarism, most U.S. companies won’t even look at unsolicited material. You have to wait till they ask you to submit something to them. I see their problem, but it’s a very shortsighted way of dealing with it. I mean, maybe the new John Wagner, or Alan Moore, or Pat Mills has just sent in his first rough, but potentially brilliant, ideas. They’d go straight in the trash.
How do you think the superhero concept has changed over time?
It hasn’t really changed, in my opinion. The basic premise is still the same: Somebody gets bitten by a radioactive spider or falls in a vat of chemicals or arrives from another world and uses his superior abilities to altruistically help mankind. In the scheme of real things, it seems very unlikely.
Today’s writers may make the hero more or less selfish, call into question whether or not he’s really doing good, demand to know why, if he’s so powerful, doesn’t he save the world, even make him into a villain. But he still needs to come from another dimension, or be sired by a demon from Hell, or withstand a direct nuclear attack.
As a writer, how do you feel about scholars (and others) imposing their readings on comic book characters and stories? Readings linking Tom Strong to fascist politics and Uncle Scrooge to U.S. imperialism and global hegemony spring immediately to mind.
As a reader, I like doing it myself—looking for things “hidden” or obscured in the text. As a writer, I know how uncommon it is for myself and other writers to deliberately insert this type of meaning into our work. Primarily, most writers and artists are seeking to entertain. We do use our own experiences and beliefs in our work, and sometimes we can create things we didn’t realize we were creating, so the scholarly approach does have value.
Plus, the entire superhero mythology lends itself to a fascistic interpretation—most heroes do not democratically ask their target defendants (as in Metropolis for Superman, for instance) if they want a superhero guardian. What if 51 percent said, “No, f--- off, big guy”?
Some comic-book scholarship has been criticized for valorizing the role of the writer over the artist. What can you tell me about the interplay between words and pictures within the comic book medium?
Alan Moore writes the longest scene descriptions I’ve ever seen in scripts—he can easily fill an A4 sheet telling the artist the precise contents of a single panel. Artist Carlos Ezquerra, creator of Judge Dredd, refuses to read any script if the scene descriptions are more than one line long; Carlos considers it the artist’s job to decide what the reader sees, to best understand the story.
It’s crazy to valorize writer over artist, or vice versa. Pictures without words, and words without pictures, quickly become dull.
I often tell school kids that comics are the perfect literature. The right side of the brain takes in and analyses the pictures, the “pattern” of the story; while the left hemisphere deciphers the meaning of the words. To understand a comic, you are forced to use both halves of the brain. No other medium demands this.
You may want to dodge this question, but I have to ask—the best year that the medium has enjoyed, in your view, and why?
Absolutely no idea. I liked 1989 because we sold tens of millions of Batman comics, but that’s hardly an objective view.
How did you come to work on Batman in Detective Comics?
Denny O’Neil called John Wagner and me out of the blue. He told us that Detective Comics, DC’s oldest title, was in danger of closing down because of poor and falling sales. He said he’d been reading Judge Dredd and asked if we could bring the same raw, darkly humorous material and outrageous villains to the pages of Batman. John wasn’t a Batman fan, but he was keen to break into the American market. I had loved Batman as a child and was honored to be asked.
We wrote the two-part Ventriloquist and Scarface story—using characters we’d originally created for a 2000AD story, “Mean Arena”—as a trial. Denny liked it and offered us a one-year contract. John quit after six or so issues, not really liking Batman and preferring to work on his own creations, but I stayed for 13 years.
Your tenure on the title gained wide acclaim among Batman fans in part because you took Batman in new directions, introduced so many new characters into the Batman universe, and brought a unique sensibility to the character and the title overall. I’m wondering if you could share your thoughts on your approach to the character, and what you set out to accomplish on the title.
When I started on the character, Denny told me his only rule: “Batman cannot kill. He will never take another human life, because to do so would define him as one of the criminal scum he opposes. Apart from that, if you can justify it, Batman can do anything.”
I recently reread a lot of my early Batman work, as a prelude to writing an intro for Norman’s art collection. It seems obvious to me now, though it never occurred to me at the time, that I was drawing strongly on my childhood memories of Batman. There’s a certain awe for the character, as if he’s in some way superhuman, but tempered with the knowledge that, in his heart, he’s a good man doing the right thing.
At the time, all I wanted to do was entertain the readers, to demonstrate and share the affection I have for the character. I set out to accomplish nothing else, although two of the minor accomplishments I did achieve may retrospectively disappear: In The Scottish Connection, I gave Bruce Wayne definite Scottish ancestry, and in Anarky #8, I established that the Joker was Anarky’s dad.
Please discuss the creative synergy between you and Norm Breyfogle.
They used to call Denny O’Neil “the Zen editor.” His talent was to put together the right creative team, then fade into the background and let his chosen ones get on with it. I don’t know what kind of vision he had to team Norman and I together, but he deserved a bonus for it. I’ve just written a thousand words on the dynamic dark beauty of Norm’s art—on his imaginative splash pages, arresting covers, and fluid storytelling. Every generation throws up its great Batman team—from Finger and Kane through O’Neil and Neal Adams to…Norm. I was lucky to be there writing the stories.
We’re actually 180 degrees opposite. The first time we met, we had a lengthy philosophical debate. I got increasingly frustrated at my inability to get him to see my point of view. Finally, after about an hour of increasingly frayed temper, he grinned and said, “You’re right. I just like arguing.”
Ordinarily I’d have replied, “And do like a fist in the moosh?” but Norm has a great grin and infinite charm. Besides, he‘s younger and tougher than me.
How free were you to do what you liked with Batman, creatively? To what extent were you limited by editorial dictates, if at all?
Denny’s only rule is as described a couple of questions back. In 13 years, he only once asked me for a rewrite. Problems only began when Marketing began to lead the way, shoving Creativity back into second place. Knightfall had been so successful, sales-wise, that they—and indeed all of us—wanted to keep that sweet money flowing. It’s thrilling when you’re touring the West Coast and sitting in the Batmobile and getting your photo taken with [a lifesize resin model of] Catwoman. So you hardly notice when KnightFall turns into KnightsEnd and suddenly you’re in the middle of Cataclysm and all of it has become quite, pardon the word, s--tey.
Did the types of stories you set out to tell change when you moved from Detective Comics to Batman?
Yes. We always looked on Detective as being “what Batman did on his night off.” Batman monthly demands a lot more obeisance to continuity, not necessarily a bad thing, though something that can become very wearisome for a writer to carry. When you’re carrying the continuity, you have to worry about what’s happening with WayneCorp, why haven’t we seen Lucius Fox for over a year, why doesn’t Bruce date anymore, where’s the Joker, etc., etc. I think I preferred the anarchy of Detective.
Please tell me how you created the character of Anarky. What inspired the character?
My inspiration was Chopper, the rebel kid from Judge Dredd stories; I figured Batman could use a similar character who, although he regularly breaks the law, is not a bad guy at heart. Also, it was in the back of my mind that DC was going to need a new Robin, and I hoped Anarky would be a contender for the role; however, unknown to me, that had already been decided between Denny and Marv Wolfman.
Anarky embodies very subversive undercurrents. I’m wondering if you could please comment on this.
Anarky reflected my own political views and philosophies of the time; I think I’m right in saying Norman was very much on the same wavelength.
Since the comic was published, my views may have moderated somewhat. But not very much. I still believe we live in an upside-down society, where genuine worth to mankind counts for zilch while the ability to lie, steal, and kill can propel you to high office. In strictly economic terms, there are only two types of human being: productive and nonproductive (or parasitic); virtually all of the world’s problems are caused by those parasites—politicians, lawyers, academe, etc.
You don’t need me to repeat this. It’s all in Anarky!
Did you meet with any censorship at the editorial level, or were you essentially allowed to do as you liked, in terms of the character’s motivations, politics, and actions?
Denny let me do exactly as I pleased, with one exception. In my original script, Anarky was not averse to murder—his taser killed the drug dealer he confronted. Denny figured this was a step too far, that if I wanted reader sympathy/empathy for Anarky, if I wanted him to be a true hero, he couldn’t be allowed to be a killer. It didn’t take much argument to persuade me.
Rereading the stories now, the character of Anarky seems symbolic of the level of social commentary that infused your tenure on the Batman books on the whole. This, to my mind, is a defining feature of your Batman work. What are your thoughts on comics as social and political commentary or critique, generally? Anarky, to my mind, embodied the promise of bringing radical critique to mainstream American comic books –
Yes. This type of social comment could only have been tackled in the pages of Batman, because as a nonsuper human, Batman is closer to the human race than any other superhero, the vast majority of whom have powers which act as a gulf between them and humanity. I have always preferred comics with “something to say,” whether I agreed with what they said or not. Without that injection of our common reality, or at least certain aspects of it, superhero comics (for me) quickly revert to rubbish.
Your Batman overture on the whole, in terms of the political and social dynamics many of the stories dealt with, seems very much in the spirit of earlier periods. Comic books published in the 1930s and 1940s, as you know, weren’t so ideologically redundant as they are today. I think of the early Superman stories, in which Superman went after corrupt government officials and slum landlords, for instance.
I wasn’t around in the 1930s—even I am not as ancient as that. However, having read much of the early Batman and Superman material, I’d say you’re right. At that time, comic books weren’t something you bought in a specialized store, where every effort has been taken to divorce the interior and layout from reality as possible. Comics were cheap, and they were ubiquitous, and it was well within their remit to comment on real life.
I had hoped that when the Batman movie franchise began, back in ’89, it would tie Batman into real life and make Gotham a real if weird-to-the-max city. Instead, Tim Burton and the director who followed him (Schumacher, was it?) preferred to source their tales in the campness of the ’60s TV show. Don’t get me wrong—I loved the ’60s TV show, which was must-see for me and all of my teenage friends; nobody went out on Saturday night till Batman was done. But it was a product of its time, and its time is long gone. Michael Keaton should have played the Joker, and Jack Nicholson should have been Batman/Bruce Wayne. That at least would have made both of them actually act for their money, instead of just playing at being themselves.
What was it about Denny O’Neil’s stories and take on Batman that you found very good, in particular?
The amount of reality he injected into his tales. Neal Adams made Batman a wonder to behold, but Denny’s stories anchored him to humanity in a way that Batman needs; even the Batman ’60s TV show showed a love of people that all real Batman tales require.
In a perfect world, should Batman stories be infused with a sense of adventure, with heavy splashes of periodic lightness? The reason I ask is because this seems to be what Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson hoped to achieve by introducing Robin in Detective Comics #38 (April 1940).
In a perfect world, Batman stories would be Finger and Kane and Jerry R. and Denny and Neal Adams, Jim Starlin, Alan Moore, Norm Breyfogle, Bolland…of all comic characters, Batman has the broadest shoulders. An artist would have to be reverse genius to get Batman wrong. Batman’s stories can be told in a million ways. No way is the correct way.
I’m not a Robin fan. Jerry told me personally they introduced Robin because the stories were becoming so dark the publishers were getting worried. They needed a younger audience, and a bit of color; Robin would bring it.
I accept the argument. I’ve read good Batman and Robin stories as well as mush. I’m just not a Robin fan. At heart, I don’t believe Batman—not the Batman I see—would really have a Robin. I know, I wrote it for years, but that’s the demands of my employer.
The misinterpretation of Batman as isolationist and potentially psychotic—where do you think this had its origins?
Not a clue. It’s a great idea, can be played for several stories and types of stories and get good emotional response. But as a long-term device, it’s a lead weight that grows with every use and will finally sink the ship.
Do you think that the world presented within Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns was at all reminiscent of 2000AD and Judge Dredd, and perhaps other work, such as Dean Motter’s Mister X?
Yeah. It was. But that was the nature of the times, I think. There may have been, as Thunderclap Newman asserted, “something in the air.”
Have you read Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again? If so, what did you think of it?
Yes. I didn’t like it very much.
When will you be writing Batman again in the future? Is there any possibility you might once again team-up with Norm Breyfogle on Batman, perhaps?
Short answers: never and no. I’ve submitted several Batman proposals to DC, with various artists. All proposals have been rejected for reasons that I have to take at face value: “Don’t like the concept”/”Doesn’t fit with what I envisage to be continuity.” The latest was rejected earlier this year—interestingly, Norm Breyfogle was to be the artist. I thought it was the second-best idea I’ve ever had for a Batman story in 13 years of writing the character. But it was nixed. (The best Batman idea I ever had was rejected the year before last. It was so perfect, it deserved to belong to Alan Moore.) But things change, sometimes. Who knows?
In what ways have comic books changed since you first began reading them?
The Beano, for instance, has lost of all its references to class; much of its humor was originally class-based, Working C versus Upper C. The humor was more violent then. Children were chattels to be thrashed.
Now it feels like the Teletubbies are taking over, hugging everything to death. The comics kids are being fed today are the literary equivalent of chicken teddies and fizzy drinks. You may think “So what?,” but it depresses me. Kids need to be told stories; they need to learn most things have beginnings and ends, they need morality demonstrated to them. Modern children’s comics are robbing them of their right to know these things and teaching them to hug.
Unless we feed them decent comics right now, the next generation will grow up to be…very wicked indeed.
OK, your favorite Batman villain, and why?
Anarky. I really wanted him to become the new Robin, though it turned out the new guy had already been created elsewhere while I wasn’t looking. But Anarky is really a good guy. I have soft spots for Ventriloquist and Scarface, because they’re so off the wall. Also Stirk, who I think of sometimes, on dark nights.
-- Jeffery Klaehn