Interview with Wytches and Batman: Endgame writer Scott Snyder
We sit down with one of the hottest writers in comics to talk Batman, Wytches, and more!
Scott Snyder is in the zone right now and every shot is falling. At the tail end of the summer, he wrapped up both The Wake and the Batman: Zero Year arc — one an Eisner Award winning limited series and the other a critically lauded and financially successful Batman origin story. Now, Snyder is about to launch into his and Greg Capullo’s Batman: Endgame arc and Wytches (with Jock), one of the most hotly anticipated series’ of the year.
With his track record and that upcoming slate, one would have to excuse Snyder if he wanted to act like a rock star, but after a moment of talking to him, it’s clear that he is a humble and grounded fellow who just so happens to have the reigns of one of the most iconic characters in comic book history, the Bat-Man.
In our exclusive interview with Snyder, we talked about his legacy on the Bat books, and Batman’s mortality as it pertains to Endgame. We also get deep into the world of Wytches, how the Image series is trying to redefine witches as a horror staple, the merits of rural creepiness as a setting, the brilliance of Jock, the human horror of bullying and the the different challenges that come with going creator-owned.
Den of Geek: I know very little about witches compared to something like vampires and zombies; that’s probably something that’s common. Can you talk to me a little bit about the possible lack of familiarity with witches and the ideas and the tropes of cauldrons and flying brooms; how that stuff actually works to your advantage when you’re developing the story?
Scott Snyder: Yeah, well we wanted to do something that really sort of rejected all of those things, I think. Just because they’ve become so familiar and so Halloween card-ish, you know? We wanted to get back to what is primally frightening about witches.
For me the two elements that are deeply scary, above and beyond, are that they’re cannibalistic and they’re always sort of out there in the woods waiting for you to sort of stumble into their house. And that sense of them not being predatory or coming after people, those two elements, sort of made for a kind of cocktail for me that I suddenly knew would allow for the kind of storytelling that I really enjoy when it comes to horror.
On the one hand, something that was physically scary that was different than anything that we’ve seen before, but secondarily and more importantly, our witches really are these ancient and primal creatures. They’re androgynous, they live out in the woods, deep in the woods and nobody really lives to tell about them. So they wait there for you to come to them sort of with what you need from them.
The sense of them is that they have this incredible knowledge of their own natural science, this ancient science, this kind of chemistry, nothing magical, but this science through which they can make all sorts of mixtures that can cure things that modern medicine can’t. Terminal illnesses, they can perform all sorts of miracles with these. And so the question becomes: they’re out there waiting, what would you give… who would you give them to get what you want? Who would you give them to save a loved one, to save yourself? Who would you pledge to them? And so once I knew that I had that and I could get away from broomsticks and pointy hats and cauldrons, it would sort of boil them down to kind of the things that I thought were primally frightening about them and would allow for an exploration of character and human nature, it would be really potently frightening… I knew that we had the book.
Now, is this all going to be about the people that are being pursued or are we going to get to see what drives these witches?
In the first arc, we really focus on this family, the Rooks family, and they’ve moved to a small town in New Hampshire to get away from something traumatic that happened to the daughter, the teenage daughter in the family, Sailor. But as the story moves on, by issue three you’re going to learn a lot about the history and the mythology of the witches themselves. And then, in subsequent arcs… in arc two we have a character who really goes after the witches and learns a tremendous amount about kinda the breadth of the things that they’ve done throughout human history. So it will definitely be a book that has a present-day narrative that kind of keeps going at a very propulsive (hopefully) pace, but the witches history and sort of where they came from and what they’ve influenced, all of that stuff is important to us too, it’s part of the fun of the book.
Can you talk a little bit about the asset that that rural environment is for you when you’re drawing up the story? I know I read in another interview that you kind of spent some time when you were a kid in a rural setting. I grew up in the backwoods of Pennsylvania for a couple years, so I know it can be inherently creepy. Can you just talk a little bit about that as a setting?
Yeah, it’s actually the backwoods of Pennsylvania that inspired it (laughs). I grew up in New York City so I have like an inherent fear of trees, I think, in general. But my parents have owned a lake house up on the border of Pennsylvania, right at the foot of the Poconos since I was about six years old. So, we’ve been going there since I was a little kid…
It’s a perfect setting!
I know! I used to think, at that time when they first bought the house, I actually confused Pennsylvania with Transylvania so I was positive that all of the woods were full of vampires so I never wanted to go to this house, no matter how many times it was explained to me that this was not Transylvania. But, eventually I made a friend next-door, Ryan, and the two of us would go exploring in the woods across the street from the house because they were non-hunting woods, so it was relatively safe. And we would go and we concocted all kinds of stories about monsters that lived out there and they eventually focused on this one story that we would keep going back to about Satanic cults, this family that lived out there with all kinds of deformed people. We would go out there and scare each other.
I was walking back recently, you know we had been there… obviously my parents have had the house since then, so we’ve been there hundreds of times and now I bring my own kids. It was about a year ago, I was there and I was passing the area where we used to go into the woods and since then they’ve built a school in the road in front of that area, so our old entryway is sort of blocked off. But I could peek around, if you kind of look around this hedge, and I remember seeing the trees swaying and at one point one of the trees kind of swayed out from behind the other one and it looked almost human and it just sort of hit me very suddenly, that kind of jolt of fear, the sense of “what if something had sort of waited all of that time?” You know — 20 years, 30 years — for me to come back? And that thought, even though I could see that it was a tree, and it was a tree, stayed with me when I got home and I knew that it was going to be the beginning of something for me. Some story, some book and then sort of parsing it out and realizing, yes that’s the scary thing: they wait there, they don’t come after you, you come to them. You know, and then sort of they engender these questions that are a lot of fun.
When I approached Jock about the book, I was like, “well, the witches, they can kinda cure almost anything, so you know, what would you give them?” And he’s like, “you wouldn’t give them anybody, nobody would give anybody.” And I’m like, well what if your kid is sick with a terrible illness, and let’s say your neighbor is just a terrible person who beats his animals (this is just awful) would it be that bad to give them that guy so that your kid gets a chance at life? And he was like, “you’re evil!” And so from there we knew that we had something special that would allow us to kind of explore darker corners of human nature but also create something that was personal for us.
What can you say about Jock’s contribution to the creative process? Building the story and the art, which is fantastic.
He’s an old friend at this point because we worked together on Detective Comics for over a year and when I had the idea for it, like I said about a year ago, he was always the only person that I was going to work with on this one. So I called him up, and there was nobody else on the list, and I told him the idea and he really liked it and we’ve just been waiting to do it ever since.
And what he brings to it is, he brings such a thoughtful, I think, emotionality to the page where he’s so good at subtly and unconventionally rendering emotion in ways that just surprise you. So for example, the angles he chooses are unstable at times to create a feeling of discomfort. Or, the kinds of distances that he chooses… sometimes he’ll go very close in ways that create almost a sort of overbearing sense of tenderness between characters right when you need that sense that this might be a little too close for comfort.
He’s so good and so smart, he’s such a thinking man’s artist and an artists artist too, in terms of how much thought he gives to how to convey feeling on the page and how to do it in ways that aren’t sort of the first choices a lot of the time. He constantly makes the story better, he’s adding things to the script all of the time.
He likes to work from full script. So I give him an absolutely full script, every panel and every line, but there’s always a caveat that I put at the very beginning of the script. It’s like, “Jock, of course as always anything that you think could be better done a different way, I defer to you and your storytelling instincts, so go for it please.” And so, for example, in issue two there’s a scene where Charlie and his friend, his agent Reggie… they’re fixing a chair. They’re setting up a chair along the banister for Charlie’s wife Lucy because she’s paraplegic, so they can go up and down the stairs and they can’t fix it. Charlie’s getting very frustrated and finally he sits down on it with his friend and at the end it goes on and instead of just having it go on, Jock had it actually go up the stairs and had them move off the panel in this great diagonal sequence with their legs and their feet kind of going off the page and it looks almost like a witch riding off on a broom and it has this kind of echo of that. That’s what I mean, things like that that are so perfect that I didn’t put in the script and then of course, luckily, I get all the credit for it (laughs).
No, I’m mean, I’m kidding. I would never take credit for the things that Jock does in that regard. Really, I hope people realize and recognize how much he contributes and also how much Matt contributes; the colorist. To me, Matt tells a full story through color. He’s similar to Jock in how thoughtful he is about ways of unconventionally sort of telling the story through color, through sort of a color arc, you know?
There are some graphic and violent teases in the actions between the two girls when they’re fighting. I don’t want to give too much away, obviously, and I know you don’t want to either. But can you talk a little bit about the decision to go that far? It’s a very adult moment.
Yeah, it’s very brutal. It is, and honestly it’s the one moment… I actually showed a couple of friends the script, women and men, before the scene was completed and just asked if they thought that I was going too far and they agreed, all of them pretty much said go for it the way it is. I hope the reason is because what I wanted to really make clear is that it’s meant to be nightmarish, psychologically and emotionally, for Sailor because she’s doing the things that you think would get you out of that situation where you stand up for yourself and it only makes things worse. To me, that’s really what a nightmare is. That terrible circularity where you just can’t get out of there. Anything you do just sort of… it’s almost elastic in the way that it just bounces back at you even more terribly. So I wanted to really make it terrifying for her, but also the flipside of it is, I hope… maybe it isn’t quite as clear to some readers but I think if you are a parent and you’re reading the book, the terror there is apparent as well. That’s where that comes from.
I was never terribly bullied as a kid. I mean, I had my moments where I was picked on and stuff and got into fights and things like that, but nothing close to what Tailor’s enduring here. But that’s my absolute abject terror, that something like that will happen to my children — to my son. So I try to write it to be as horrifying as possible to scare myself too and to create a situation where you see the horror of the things… the most memorable horror in the issue comes from a human character. In that sense that that’s what the witches rely on. They rely on the uglier parts of our nature. They know that we’ll eventually come to them. You know? Out of selfishness, out of fear, out of the things that inspire that kind of terrible thing between Annie and Sailor.
What’s the difference between putting your own stamp on something like Batman and something like witches and also vampires? Obviously they all have their own fans, their own following and their own canon, if you will. Talk to me a little bit about the difference between pushing the boundaries with each of those each of those characters.
I think the strange thing about it is, when you’re writing Batman, the key is to write him like you made him up. And while you’re staying true to the core, try and create stories that are really personal. So, for me for example, “The Court of Owls” is largely about growing up in New York. I grew up on the Lower East Side and to me that neighborhood and the neighborhoods that we would go to down by the seaport and Chinatown, they have this haunting sense of history that you could know the physical neighborhood and the geography of it like the back of your hand but you’ll never know all of the lives that were lived there.
And so as much as Batman knows Gotham, for me, the fun was trying to create a feeling that he’ll never know the history and it’s an arrogance that he might have to think that he knows the city at all, really, when the lives that were lived there, kind of what is the city at any given moment… And so, that story is kind of about weaponizing that fear and that history and bringing it to life against him, so the challenges constantly with Batman or Superman or any really iconic character is to make sure that you’re writing them from a place that’s true to your interests as a writer outside of those characters.
With creator owned work, it’s almost a reverse. I feel like, or the inverse of that, where you organically are writing it from a place that’s your interest because you’re making it up, and the challenge is to make sure that you find a balance that’s appropriate for you, I think, as a writer that allows it to be accessible and universal.
How plot driven do you want to make it? How much do you want to give the reader in terms of conventional tropes? It’s a balancing act. What is absolutely true for this story? Is it going to be a story where you’re going to do it in 10 issues and have it be much more character driven? Do you do it slower? Do you do it faster than that? Do you make it more bombastic? You have really be true to the story and to yourself, and that’s kind of the challenge, I think, with that. The temptation sometimes is to make sure, because you’re doing and it’s your book, that you make it commercial or that you make it muscular in certain ways. And to resist those urges and make sure that you’re finding a way of making it accessible and universal without compromising any kind of integrity for the book. Where as it’s almost the opposite. Batman and those characters come with a built-in universal sort of appeal and it’s about making them yours. Does that make sense?
Yeah, it does. Obviously there’s been Court of Owls and Zero Year, but have you written your signature Batman book? The book that you’ll be remembered for. Do you think you have, do you want that to be the case, or are you still hoping to crack something?
I don’t know. I try not to think of it that way, only because it’s too intimidating already, just to be writing Batman (laughs).
Okay, so you don’t want to think about your legacy?
Not really. What I try and do is just think of it as like, is each story something that I’m writing as though I’ve only got one chance to write Batman. So I try and make, as weird as it sounds, each one my signature story and hope that we sort of approximate that bar simply by trying to do stuff that’s really organic to us.
So Zero Year, for us, to me that was the thing that I was proudest of. But the story that we are doing now, Endgame, when you see the nature of it, it’s all about Batman’s mortality. It’s all about this sense of him kind of coming to terms with the idea that he exists for one moment in the cities history and that’s it. And that it’s a very very personal story to me. And again, I like to think that I’m writing it and Greg’s drawing it as though we are writing it as though this was our only chance on Batman, forgetting we ever wrote another story or that we will ever get to write another one after.
I understand the criticism of that, of not doing lots of shorter stories or one-shots, and I’d like to do that at some point, but I still feel a sense of urgency about it. So many people out there… I know so many writers have one great Batman story that they want to do. Like if they ever got a chance to write the character they would do this one sorry that they have, but I feel like if I’m not doing that each story and trying to write the next story I’d write if I only had one chance to write Batman, I’m almost doing a disservice to the character, I’d rather kind of move aside and let somebody who has kind of their opus do it.
So I try to write my signature story, I guess, each time hoping that even if I can never come close some of the great writers that I really love who have written the book over the years, I know that I’m doing my best at least that’s some small comfort.
Is it hard to go into a story where you’re talking about Batman’s mortality when, in effect, he’s somewhat immortal? I mean, just in the practical sense, obviously, when you’re done with the character, someone else is going to pick him up and so and so forth. Is it tough to write about his mortality in a way that’s really affecting to the reader?
I know what you mean. I think that it’s… honestly, for me, it’s not hard because having written him now for a few years, you get to know your version of the character really well and it becomes a creator owned character to you. I had a great talk with Grant Morrison in San Diego last year where he asked me if I had a death for my Bruce yet, and I realized that I kind of did have an end and I actually wrote it into Detective Comics #27 where we got to do sort of Batman shorts. And what I realized when he asked that was that each one of us has a complete Batman — a beginning, a middle and an end that’s our Batman when you’ve been on it for a while. So for me, my Bruce does wrestle with these questions. He got in to it to be something larger than a man, he wants to be an inspiration. He wants to inspire fear in criminals and hope and rebellion in some ways in the populace of Gotham. Rebellion against, sort of, the oppressive conditions of their own lives in many ways and their own fears.
That said, he is a man who is in his prime but there are signs all around, I think sometimes, that bad things will happen to him. His body will fail, he will become old, he will lose the family members around him. He’s real, he’s flesh and blood to me — my Bruce, in that way. So I might not be able to convince a reader that he is going to die and be taken off the table as a figure in comics, but I think emotionally I’m convinced… I have to be convinced, I think, that I can convey that sense, deep down, of anxiety that I think that he has that one day he won’t be fast enough to stop something terrible from happening in Gotham. One day, he won’t be able to put the costume on anymore and the city will pass him by. And what if all of the things that he did are undone in those moments? And that fear, I think, is real for Batman. So in that way, I think, that’s his greatest strength. Not to give away a sort of point of the story, but he’s not immortal. He might be immortal culturally, but he is a human being. He doesn’t have the power of immortality. He’s not a God, he doesn’t have superpowers, he’s one of us and in being one of us, that’s what makes him an enduring folk hero, I think.