This Batman article contains spoilers.
Tom King did the impossible. In a comics industry founded on the bedrock principle that only the appearance of growth should ever be shown, he’s told a massive, three-year, 85-issue story that has Bruce Wayne actually develop as a character.
With Alfred’s death earlier in the final story arc, “City of Bane,” many would have expected Bruce to shun his supporting cast and dedicate himself to revenge, leaving Gotham littered with shattered criminals as he pushed his grief through his fists and his enemies’ faces. But that’s not what happened.
We got a chance to talk with King about character growth, how his epic tale developed, and what’s next for Batman, Catwoman, and King himself in the DCU.
Den of Geek: You talk about Vision, Omega Men, and Sheriff of Babylon being a thematic trilogy, right?
Tom King: Yeah.
Can we look at Mister Miracle, Heroes in Crisis, and Batman the same way?
Oh yeah, 100% yeah. That’s what I think of it. Yeah. I’m glad someone noticed.
It’s about heroes managing trauma, right?
It is. I call it the Trauma Trilogy. That’s just too easy, maybe. I feel like the first story about my war experience and [the main characters of each book] were all someone naively going into a situation and finding it much more complicated than they thought. And then these three were all about, I’ve said this publicly a billion times, about this nervous first-season-of-the-Sopranos breakdown I had in 2016 when I first started on Batman, and sort of how I recovered from that. And I sort of wrote it three different ways. Yeah, it’s like some fancy dish, you know. The Trauma Trilogy.
So the breakdown in 2016 happened after you had already started on Batman. How far is what ended up on the page drifted from what you initially conceived it to be?
I mean it’s pretty close. There’s some stuff that didn’t quite pan out. Batman isn’t like a series like Mister Miracle or our upcoming Strange Adventures that we’re doing. You have to write Batman with some degree of compromise because it’s a much bigger platform and overlaps a lot of other books. You have a lot more eyes on it in terms of editorial control. And so yeah, it wasn’t entirely a straight line, but considering it was 85 issues of DC’s best-selling comic, I think it was a lot straighter than I thought it would be in terms of going from one spot to another.
It was always supposed to be about a love story and that was there from day one. I remember talking about that with my first editor, Mark Doyle…being like, “What is this book about?” And me literally just searching and searching until I found an old clip of the Batman ‘66 TV show. It was just like, “Oh man, I love this.” The Catwoman, Batman dynamic.
And it hadn’t been in the books in a long time. Not since, like, Judd Winnick, New 52 stuff. So that part about it, the fact that it was just one big love story. That was the same and Bane was supposed to be the main bad guy. But the stuff with Flashpoint, Batman evolved as we went along. I’d say that’s the thing that’s evolved the most.
We talked that second arc, I think, about Bane, Catwoman, and Batman being three sides of the same shitty coin. But now with Thomas included in there, it feels like it’s kind of four points on a graph, labeling each axis. You’ve got like Batman who had privilege but lost everything at a young age. You have Thomas on the other end who had everything for most of his life and then lost everything. You’ve got Catwoman, who was born into nothing and kind of hangs on to everything but keeps it at arms length. And you’ve got Bane, who kind of grabs whatever he can and crushes it to death. As Thomas evolved into this, does that sound like what you were thinking at all?
Yeah, I do think they all represent this idea of who’s top of the mountain in their own way. I guess you could say who does Gotham belong to? Bane sees Gotham as a prize that he has to win. Thomas sees Gotham as a burden. For Catwoman, Gotham is just who she is and she’s sort of queen of that city. And then for Batman, it’s … I mean that’s what the whole question is. What does he mean to Gotham?
With Alfred’s death, was it kind of a backdoor way of you taking a look at Bruce’s origins? You know, using the death of a father figure to kind of shock him out of being Batman the way that he was shocked into being Batman?
Yeah, but it was also a way to show what the difference is between Bruce losing his parents when he was young and connected to them, and Bruce losing Alfred having been raised by Alfred. To me that was a tribute to sort of Alfred’s parentage of Bruce for all these years and him guiding him through that trauma. Because you expect Batman in that moment to bury himself in anger and go insane and do all the things that drove him to be Batman in the first place. But instead of that, he hears Alfred’s voice and he composes himself. To me it’s sort of about the maturing of the character and maturing of it through the love of Alfred. I know I said this in the book, there are no good deaths. There’s a nobility to death if you’ve treated your children right.
Well, I would quibble with that only because I think you could have killed Batman at any point in the last 85 issues and whatever was happening would have been a hell of a way to go. Right? Like he has a heart attack on a ferris wheel with Superman. That’s a pretty okay way to do it.
Wait I did kill Batman! I killed him in annual number two.
Oh yeah! Yeah.
I gave him my ideal death. He dies instead as an old man surrounded by his family.
And that’s the good death.
That’s a good one. That’s as best as you can do with no other choices.
After 85, it feels like that’s kind of the direction, right? Batman for so long has been that traumatized little boy, to the point where it’s almost a parody, and many of your predecessors have done something interesting with that. But it always feels like the traumatized little boy has been the dominant perception of him, at least in my adult life. Is this your way of kind of trying to push him through it?
The story of Batman is unending conflict. I’m sure whoever comes after me will embrace the Batman of their own and I bless him for doing it. I know James [Tynion IV, the writer taking over Batman with #86]’s stuff is going to be, from what I’ve seen, amazing. Batman’s not a story that I have the power to end. I just kind of come in and take the reins for a while and then pass it onto someone else as brilliant as James and Tony [Daniel, the artist on the first arc].
But I can sort of, I don’t know, tell my story. I don’t know, maybe I’m too old to write Batman. Frank was 29 when he wrote The Dark Knight Returns. I’m 41. But it seems like as you get older and you actually see your parents pass, you see your loved ones pass, you realize that everyone has to go through that trauma. Right? You sort of realize that it can become part of you and something you’re proud of as well. The grief never leaves you. It never leaves Batman. It’s a wonderful metaphor. But also there’s a certain joy to that grief because it sort of unites you with your lost ones.
So hopefully, as you go on, you sort of mature into that. I hate to say that the greatest hero America’s ever created, which is Batman, never got a chance to mature into it like the rest of us hopefully get to do. Yeah, I mean that’s what that’s about. He says, when I was a child, I did childish things and now it’s time to grow up a little bit.
So the action sequences have been phenomenal through the whole thing. There have been some stellar fight sequences, especially Jorge [Fornes’] last ten issues. Every time he comes in it’s incredible.
They’ve been phenomenal. When I think back on the run, what I think is going to jump out at me are going to be the quiet moments. The double date, 12 Angry Batmen, Bruce and Selina grabbing a beer and watching football at a bar. What do you think was about those quiet moments that let you make them sing?
I mean, the first thing is the art. All three of those things you mentioned, you’ve got Lee Weeks…there’s not a lot of people who can draw a dynamic room with just 12 people talking. Clay Mann doing the double date. Just him elevating himself and becoming the best artist in comics while I was watching. And then Mikel [Janin]. I’ve been with Mikel for five years now since Grayson. He did the first Batman I did and he’s doing the last.
It’s really hard. I mean, as dumb as it sounds, it’s probably easier to draw a dynamic fight scene than a dynamic quiet scene. So those guys are doing the heavy lifting.
As far as the other stuff goes. You know, it’s … DC Fontana died yesterday, right? The Star Trek author, and she’s famous for saying, “Star Trek is not about objects. It’s about characters.” Like, that’s her thing. If you’re writing an episode of Star Trek, don’t make it about the thing. Make it about the people’s relationships. So I think that that’s what those moments are about is we’ve had a lot of conflicts. Fantastic, amazing conflicts about things. But I try to make my conflicts about the characters. Just trying to follow what she told me to do. What she said. Not that I ever met her but I remember what she said to do.
So looking back, is there an issue that stands out in your mind as something that you just absolutely nailed? Like, it’s the Batman/Elmer Fudd issue, right?
No, I hate it. [laughs] I love that issue, but there’s two typos in it. It still drives me crazy. I’ll never manage to get them to fix those. When I first got the comp finished, I threw in the trash I was so pissed. “Oh, I ruined this one. Oh well. I’ll try again next time.” And then I won awards for it, it was ridiculous.
All three of the annuals I really like. I like the dog story that David Finch and I did in the first annual, which was suggested by my daughter when she was like five.
And I liked the second annual, which has sort of the first dates and the beginning of the end of the Catwoman/Batman relationship. That annual’s the jumping off point for the whole Batman/Catwoman series. So that’s how much I like it, I’m trying to copy it.
And I like the fourth annual I did with Jorge, which was just sort of like a chance for me to do a thesis statement on what Batman is. And there was seven days of Batman in seven different genres and then it continued sort of forever. I like those three.
Similarly, is there an issue that you wish you could get another crack at?
Oh man, there’s a ton of issues I wish I could … I mean, I look at the dialogue and I’m like, “Oh, I could have done that better.”
It took me a while to learn how to work with Joelle Jones, who’s one of the most talented artists out there right now. And I think, I feel like I did a Wonder Woman issue with her and I feel like I wasted two of them first of all, because the story I wrote turned out to be very similar to a story that Joe Kelly had done. I hadn’t read the story but I was very…I would have changed it if I had known. I sort of understood how to write for [Joelle] by Batman #44, which I think is really nice, but I think it’s 39 and 40, the two Joelle Jones issues, I wish I could have another shot at doing well.
I really liked those.
TK: They’re beautiful! They’re drawn beautifully, but I don’t know, we could have done something…it was really fine, but I feel like it could have transcended. I missed it.
I guess. The Justice League flirting between the two of them in the cartoon is high on my list of preferred pairings. So like the way that you played with that made me happy. Is there a character you feel particular ownership of now? Like if somebody comes in and changes Kite Man, are you going to throw the issue across the room and scream, “Fuck no, that’s not how this is supposed to be done.”
No, I think that’s kind of silly. It’s kind of like when you sign up for this gig, that’s part of the agreement and coming into comics is realizing that this is a medium that extends to other people and no one has benefited more from that than me, who’s twisted the work of Jack Kirby and Marv Wolfman and Bob Kane and Bill Finger for my own benefits. I feel like denying that to others would be hypocritical.
Gotham Girl’s named after my daughter Claire. Claire Clover is her name. So I do like her. Like I have in my daughter’s room a David Finch piece or a page that he did and a page that Clay Mann did they gave to me for her. So I like her because she’s named after my daughter.
Wow. That’s got to be pretty sweet.
I know. I try to tell her brag, brag to your friends! But does she brag?
She’ll get there. As soon as she shows up in a movie, everyone’s going to be like, “Oh, you’re so cool.” Would you do it again? Marvel comes to you tomorrow and says, “We want a hundred issues of Spider-Man. Do whatever the hell you want.” Do you jump at or do you run screaming?
I don’t remember anyone ever saying, do whatever you want with Batman.
It never happened. Would I do it again? I mean I have no regrets about doing it. On many levels, I feel like I’m artistically satisfied with what happened. I feel like I made my career and made my life and I had fun.
But it’s that second thing you said, the control of it. As I move forward, I kind of want to do, I don’t know, like, I want to do super ambitious stuff and it’s hard to do super ambitious stuff in that environment.
I feel like I got as close as I could get with [Batman]. I had a brilliant editor in Jamie Rich, huge support from Dan DiDio, but I don’t know if I’ll ever get that much again. Going forward, we’ll see. But I just want to do something, I don’t know, big and ambitious and literary and I don’t know if that’s possible anymore. If it is, I’ll go.
You did the Sheriff and Omega Men and Vision Trilogy. You did the Heroes in Crisis Trilogy, or the Trauma Trilogy. Where are we going next?
Yeah, something new. I’m trying to move on. I’m trying to move on from fat middle aged men looking out windows, thinking about their lives. I think it’ll be like another trilogy of books. It will be Strange Adventures, [Batman/Catwoman], and another book that hasn’t been announced yet.
And all of this will be these 12-issue miniseries, like these little novels and they’ll all be focused on a new, bigger theme. The way things develop when you’re writing, you can write it one way where you’re like, “I’m going to write about this theme,” then you go write it. But when I do that, it just turns out shitty.
The best way I think to do it is just to write straight through so your unconscious mind brings it to the surface while you fight doing the same thing over and over again. So I’m not 100 percent sure these things are still forming as they form, but it’s going to be a lot about all the shit that’s in the news every single day.
As much as Mister Miracle was about sort of the trauma of looking around our current environment, thinking, “My God, this can’t be real. I feel like I’m trapped here,” Strange Adventures will be about how do we fight back this pernicious stuff that seems to surround us. And I think that’s what Batman/Catwoman will sort of be about too.
Hopeful is the wrong word because some of them are dead dark books. I don’t feel hopeful right now. But I feel like, I don’t know, it feels like we’re in the middle of the war and you don’t feel hopeful in the middle of the war, but you still feel like you’d have to fight. You know?
It’s more about that feeling, not the feeling that, “Oh God, we’re going to win.” But the feeling of, “Oh God, we can’t lose or else.”
And Strange Adventures, I’ve read the first one and it’s … I couldn’t love it more. It’s 28 pages. Doc [Shaner] and Mitch [Gerads] are doing crazy new stuff you haven’t seen in comics before, which I think is cool in terms of mixing the two arts together. The two, I don’t know, styles or whatever.
I couldn’t be more proud of it. I remember Garth Ennis famously saying that with The Boys, you out-Preacher Preacher. So we’re going to try to out-Mister Miracle Mister Miracle, to steal from Garth.