Batman, Black Lightning, and the Birth of the New Outsiders

Bryan Hill is getting deep into Batman's role as a mentor and teacher in the pages of Detective Comics.

DC’s core Batman title is the one that gets all the attention most of the time. A parade of virtually unbroken runs by writers Grant Morrison, Scott Snyder, and now Tom King have seen to that. But you should never, ever sleep on Detective Comics. For one thing, it’s DC’s second biggest legacy title after Action Comics, not to mention that the book that introduced the Dark Knight to the world always deserves plenty of respect. Just as we’ve had a parade of towering creative teams on Batman, so have we had on Detective, with Peter Tomasi handing off the book to James Tynion IV for a two-year run, who has in turn handed it off to Bryan Hill.

And Hill is making the most of his five-issue tenure as writer of Detective Comics. He has introduced a brand new villain, teamed Batman up with Black Lightning, and laid the foundation for a new team of Outsiders. That’s a lot of bat for the buck, and that alone would make these stories worth checking out. But Hill has a secret weapon: he knows what makes Bruce Wayne tick. Despite all of the heavy lifting being done around the Bat-family in Detective Comics, Hill has a knack for putting a new spin on Batman’s well-worn drive and motivation, and he clearly has a tremendous love for the history of the character.

We sat down with Mr. Hill at San Diego Comic-Con, and he took us on a tour of the streets of Gotham City according to Detective Comics.

Den of Geek: This is kind of a different take. It’s not a solo Batman story. You’re kind of expanding the Batman family a little bit. You want to talk about this?

Bryan Hill: Well after the excellent work that James Tynion IV had done on Detective, I wanted to take this idea of the Bat-family and I wanted to challenge it in terms of what did it mean for Bruce Wayne to have to share his legacy with other people. The origins of Batman, it’s about a guy who wanted to become a myth. To find the superstition and criminal landscape to use fear against people who cause fear.

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So the big question of the story, and all of my stories tend to have some large question, that I engage is, can Batman still be that creature of fear if he’s sharing his legacy with all of these other characters? Does it make him too familiar? Is he turning himself into a brand? And by doing so, is he diluting the effect of what he can do for Gotham?

And that’s what this mysterious villain keeps saying…He comes after Signal and Cassandra Cain and he says, “You’re making him weaker.”

When you turn yourself into a symbol, you become a magnet for a lot of psychopathy for people that are disturbed and broken in various ways. And this villain, Karma, has a relationship to Batman that predates the story of the book and we’re going to explore that as the story continues. But yes, he has very powerful motivations to make sure that in his mind, Batman is everything he believes Batman should be.

It’s funny that you keep coming back to this idea to how Bruce Wayne has turned himself into a symbol as Batman. And one of the first lines in the first issue of your run, he says, “I became a nightmare but that doesn’t mean I don’t have them.” That says a lot right out of the gate about your take on Batman.

Before I started I had spoken to [Batman writer] Tom [King] a little bit. I really like how he is able to explore the man inside of the batsuit. So I wanted to make sure that what I was doing was carrying that ball down the field a little bit. I mean, Bruce Wayne is still a person with fears and hopes and dreams and all the things that people have. Simultaneously he tries to become something that is inherently not a person. How does just a guy become something that symbolic, that powerful? You know? And so he’s really saying at the beginning of the story, just because I am this thing, doesn’t mean I don’t have the same human frailties that everyone else has.

I get the feeling you have a unique take on the dichotomy between Bruce and Batman…

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Oh, that’s because I’m crazy. I have a unique take on a lot of things.

But you’ve obviously given a lot of thought to the idea of Batman as a symbol. There’s another line that, in five words, I think says more about Batman and Bruce Wayne than a lot of writers will say in an entire run. Jefferson Pierce asks him, “What does Bruce Wayne owe you?” And Batman says, “He owes me his life.” Can you expand on that a little bit?

The creation that is Batman was the way that Bruce Wayne was able to reconcile the trauma in his life. Right? That little boy, who watched his parents get killed, blames himself even though he was a child and probably couldn’t have done anything. He blames himself for what happened. Batman was the only way he could funnel all that emotion into something that would allow him to have a life. So, for me, Bruce views Batman as the key that unlocked him from the dungeon of his own trauma. And just as Batman has symbolic meaning to all of Gotham, Batman also has symbolic meaning to Bruce Wayne himself. And I think that’s what he was speaking to there. It’s a double entendre. It’s a truth and a hidden truth.

I think as readers start to see this relationship between Jefferson Pierce, Black Lightning, Bruce Wayne, and Batman unfold, you’re going to see revelations from the both of them that speak to who they are, what they have in common and also what they have that separates them in terms of perspective. They’re two characters that essentially want the same things, but they have very, very different methods. But in that moment, I think Bruce was admitting something powerfully honest, even if Jefferson wasn’t quite able to understand all of the meaning. But he comes later, and when he realizes that Bruce Wayne is Batman, I would imagine that line has a resonance for him.

Can we talk a little bit more about Jefferson and Bruce? Because this book has Jefferson Pierce as Black Lightning and there’s a lot going on there with how Bruce is trying to recruit Black Lightning for this project he’s putting together. Jefferson Pierce is a teacher in the traditional sense. Batman is a mentor and a teacher in a lot of kind of non-traditional ways.

Almost a hyper-traditional sense. Right?

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I guess so. Yeah!

Jefferson’s a post-modern mentor and then Batman’s a mentor in almost a classic mythological sense. I used to teach. I went to NYU, came out of NYU and did a bunch of things. I worked in marketing for a bit, and one of the things I did was also I taught. I was a substitute teacher for a little bit. And I just kind of bounced around schools and did all of that sort of thing. Education’s very important to me as a person. Education is the reason why I’m sitting here right now doing what I can do, is because I had teachers that invested into my mind and my future and guided and shaped my ambitions and my dreams. If we don’t have those people in our lives we never really are able to realize our potential.

So it was very important for me, for that aspect of Jefferson, to not just be like a bullet point in his character. Peter Parker’s a photographer, but doesn’t really seem to care about photography. Right? And I didn’t want it to just be a note. I wanted it to inform his life as both a teacher in a school, but also as a superhero. And I think the biggest difference between Batman and Black Lightning is Batman heads out thinking about what he can stop. And Black Lightning heads out thinking about who he can save. And the combination of those factors, that yin and yang kind of aspect is the strength of that partnership and they’ll both come to realize that as it continues on in the story.

As this is going on, there are some familiar elements that seem to be coming together because Batman has led these side teams in the past, in his history with the Outsiders. So I have to ask…this does kind of seem like you’re putting together a new team of Outsiders?

Well, for that I’ll have to give you my most diplomatic answer. I am a big fan of the Outsiders. I thought it was a great book, great stories, I read them a lot when I was growing up. And I have nothing to announce at this time about it, but I would suggest that people that are fans of both Batman and Black Lightning should head out to local comic book stores and pick up those issues and if they enjoy those stories, maybe there’ll be something in the future.

So let’s talk about this team that’s coming together. Because, we have Signal, obviously you have Jefferson Pierce, and you have Cassandra Cain. Who else is on the menu here?

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Well, I don’t want to give away everyone who’s gonna show up in the story, but you might see a certain Japanese hero make an appearance. You might see other heroes from Gotham make an appearance. What I wanted to do with the story really is, bring someone in, like Jefferson who has a different point of view on this group of Gotham heroes, and for the reader to be able to see them both from Batman’s point of view and through Jefferson’s point of view. So there’s gonna be a collection of characters that are going to be touched by this narrative, and affected by this narrative going forward. Whether it’s me writing stories or not. I think it’s really important for readers to know that the events of this arc will have an effect, a ripple effect across the DCU, especially across Batman’s world. Whether it’s me continuing that or not continuing that, the story matters.

One of the things that they told me initially when they asked me if I wanted to do this arc, [DC co-publishers] Dan [Didio] and Jim [Lee], they told me, “Bryan we want this story to matter. We want you to feel free to tell the story you want to tell. And if it affects things in the future but we want you to be passionate about their work.” And that’s what really drew me to wanting to do this. Because Batman means so much to me as a person.

My father died when I was seven years old. It was cancer, no one shot him or anything, you know, but I still had the loss. And the day I found out that he passed away, I walked into a comic book store, and I think it was Batman Year One in single issues or something. The cover was little Bruce Wayne sitting in the spotlight, holding his parents hands. Right? And that was a mirror for me. I felt like that. And I’m like, “I don’t know what this is. I’m gonna buy this. Because that’s the feeling I have right now.” I read it, and that helped me contextualize what I was going through, because Bruce Wayne was going through the same thing. So growing up, as I was struggling with the loss and coming out of it and trying to figure it out, and adolescent anger that comes from that kind of trauma, I kept going back to Batman. Thinking about well, Bruce figured out a way to do it, what would Bruce Wayne do? You know? How would he do that? So this character means so much to me.

And I know my story isn’t singular. That’s the story of a lot of Batman fans and the story of a lot of comic book fans. We fall in love with these characters because their heroism and sacrifice sees us through our own darkness. That’s the power and importance of mythology. So yeah, so when they came to me about it, they told me, “Yeah, you can do something that you really care about, you’re really passionate about.” So we’re gonna see a whole host of characters. They’re gonna be challenged, and they’re gonna struggle in different ways. I tend to put characters through a crucible a little bit. I think that’s important. 

The first three parts of this Detective Comics story are on sale now, with new issues shipping every two weeks.

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