Scott Snyder & Declan Shalvey Talk All-Star Batman & “The Cursed Wheel”
Scott Snyder and Declan Shalvey deconstruct "The Cursed Wheel," All-Star Batman's unique backup story about heroism.
This interview contains spoilers.
Comic book veteran Scott Snyder is dishing out the most insane, out-of-control, action-packed Batman story of his career in All-Star Batman. And this is the guy who had a Bat mech punching a kaiju-sized villain in the face in his last story before the Rebirth relaunch. Two issues into his new Batman series, it’s quite obvious that Snyder wants to top himself.
Batman, on a mission to save Harvey Two-Face from completely succumbing to his dark side, goes on explosive road trip that’s taken him out of Gotham and onto a very hostile blacktop. Standing in the way of his mission is virtually every member of Batman’s rogues gallery, and not just the A-list. Snyder has reintroduced deep cuts like Firefly, Killer Moth, Black Spider, Gentleman Ghost, Amygdala, King Shark, Copperhead, Cheshire, and KGBeast in just the first two issues. Even Batman’s closest allies seem to be turning on him. Snyder’s new book is basically Batman vs. the World.
But underneath the epic adventure story is a much more intimate mystery starring Duke Thomas, a Snyder creation, who has become Batman’s new protégé. But he’s not just a sidekick. Batman’s taking a new approach to how he trains his allies called the Cursed Wheel, a condensed version of all of Bruce’s training before he became the Dark Knight mixed with Alfred’s invalulable wisdom. The idea is that every member of the Bat family falls under a different color on the wheel. Dick is blue, Damien is green, and Barbara is purple. In “The Cursed Wheel” backup story, Bruce is helping Duke figure out where he belongs on the wheel, and there are even hints that he might not necessarily end up on the side of justice.
So far, Batman and Duke have tackled the color black, which represents evil—a perfect representation of a villain like serial killer Mr. Zsasz. Brought to life by the wonderful work of penciller Declan Shalvey and colorist Jordie Bellaire, “The Cursed Wheel” is a tale of grisly murder, heroism, and lots of color.
I spoke to Snyder and Shalvey about “The Cursed Wheel,” why Duke Thomas is unlike any character in Gotham, and how to balance Batman’s dark side with his ridiculous comedic timing. You can also find the first part of our All-Star Batman interviews here.
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Den of Geek: I think you’re doing a book unlike any other in the current Batman line. You’re mixing really dark stuff with a lot of humor. How do you balance both the dark and light sides of Batman?
Scott Snyder: With this particular series I’m going farther in that direction than I’ve tried before in terms of the elasticity of the mythology. I wanted to push it the way we pushed it when I was on Batman with “Superheavy” or “Zero Year” where there was a lot of fun and bombast, but it was also personal. [In All-Star], I wanted to take that to its complete extreme, like the end of the Earth extreme, where it’s over-the-top humorous, yet at the same time really deeply about what I think is of this particular moment in time, at least for me. The things I’m terrified of and the things I’m hopeful about. My life is the page.
I was just saying to Declan—it was funny, we were talking about how do [I] talk about Batman so much. One of the things that’s great is that he’s a character that lends himself to very personal stories. This one’s like that because it’s about these things that I think weigh heavily on me in terms of my own failings and the things that I worry about and my personal demons. Is the sum of my personal demons greater than the things that I like about myself? Is this moment—because it’s a particulary high tension, scary moment for all of us in terms of the global climate—going to bring out the best or the worst in us?
It’s a story that keeps things grounded in terms of what it’s about. If I know what something’s about, and I can always have that touchstone, I feel like I can reach for really ridiculous humor and also go really dark in terms of the things I’m afraid of. That’s a very long-winded way of saying that having that North Star for every story is really key for me. It allows me to go farther and farther off the reservation.
Declan Shalvey: For me, I’m a fan of really dark, depressing stuff. Even something like The Wire, which can be hugely depressing and really serious, the bits I always remember are the jokes, you know? There’s a great line by Joss Whedon: “Make it dark, make it grim, make it tough, but then, for the love of God, tell a joke.” Even for a reader, there’s only so much punishment they can take. You’ve got to give them a break here and there.
Batman’s comedic timing in this book is brilliant, especially in the scene where Batman and Two-Face curse at each other.
SS: Thanks! I had to fight for wingdings. He needs to curse sometimes!
It works so well! So Declan, you’re drawing the much darker part of the book. I mean that panel where the woman’s cuts split open at the end of #1 is the stuff of nightmares. What’s it been like drawing Batman for you?
DS: I feel like I’ve been training my entire career for this moment in a lot of ways. So many artists just want to draw Batman, and I’m getting the opportunity to do the backups in a brand-new Scott Snyder project that has so many artists. In a way, I’m glad I’m first because I won’t have to panic about following anybody other than industry legend John Romita Jr. And he drew Daredevil: The Man Without Fear, which is one of the books that had a massive effect on me as a reader and an artist. It has been intimidating, scary, exciting, and incredibly satisfying.
There’s a page in #2 where I did one of the most interesting pages I’ve ever drawn. I had to think, “This is a big, blockbuster comic book.” You’re prepared to be more fan service-y or bombastic. Yet I did one of the most challenging pages I’ve ever drawn, and it was incredibly satisfying to do that on a project like this.
SS: That’s one of my favorite pages that I’ver ever seen in a comic that I’ve worked on.
You guys must be talking about the awesome Duke portrait on the first page of “The Cursed Wheel.” It’s wonderful. Can you talk a bit about the process of making that page?
DS: Well, Scott was just like, “I have this idea. What do you think?” And the practical artist brain in me was like “I don’t know how the hell I’m going to draw that!” Some guys can do digital things where they make some tricks work, but I work on paper and I work with washes. You can’t just change things afterwards. You have to get it right on the page. So all I saw was the potential to make a hundred mistakes and ruin the piece. But whenever I feel like I’ve done my best pages is when I’ve been the most afraid, you know? And when I have to take a risk and jump in.
It was an interesting idea. I couldn’t recall ever seeing it in a comic. The fact that I didn’t know how I was going to do it was a huge challenge. I think it might be one of my favorite pages I’ve ever drawn.
If you ever see the black and white, that’s what I did. Scott’s idea was a montage, but a lot of that is actually about color. A lot of those mosaics are dependent on how your eye will make like an orange with two different colors. And the way Jordie [Bellaire] made that…I mean, I felt like I did a really good job, but Jordie knocked it into the stratosphere as far as I’m concerned.
How did you guys come up with the idea for “The Cursed Wheel?”
SS: “The Cursed Wheel” is the heart of the whole year on All-Star. All-Star is a series that’s largely compartmentalized so that every artist can reinvent a villain and have Batman go up against the villain in a way that’s pretty singular. But at the same time, the first fifteen issues are one big meditation, and they culminate in a surprise as to who is the last villain in the row. So “The Cursed Wheel,” which Declan and Jordie are starting here, is the one constant. It’s a story in the backups that will go through the whole year and be the one consistent narrative. It anchors the entire [book].
The features are all about villainy and who is Batman’s greatest villain. What are his greatest flaws? How are the villains scary? A modern way of reinventing some of them or at least tweaking some of them so that they have missions that are slightly different than they had before, so that they speak to more modern fears. But the backup is all about heroism. It’s about looking into the different corners of your own personality and psychology and saying, “What are the things I’m proudest of? How am I my own greatest hero?” If the features are about who’s [Batman’s] greatest villain, then the backups are about what are the things that make [him] heroic. I felt it really balanced itself.
I’m so honored and thrilled to be working with Declan and Jordie here, where it’s largely also about color. First of all, Declan in black and white is one of the best in the business. But also knowing that Jordie would work on it too, I felt like it would be a perfect combination, because the story is so much about where you fall on a color wheel and the colors that make up the whole pantheon of Bat characters. Every character leans a little bit differently when it comes to Batman’s own map of the color wheel. It’s been a blast.
DS: If you’re talking about color and story, you want Jordie Bellaire. She puts so much color within the work that she does. Especially when I was reading the script, I was like, “This is going to be Jordie’s jam!” Because it’s all about theme, color iconography, and color as character. I remember there’s a panel in the first chapter where I was thinking in my mind that it would be different colors, but when Jordie colored it, it was one yellow. And I was like, “Oh, she used yellow!” And then I was like, “Of course, because yellow is Duke.” She’s always thinking about that stuff.
SS: She knows how to tell a story with color.
Declan, I’m guessing Zsasz has afforded you a lot of opportunities to draw some very grotesque scenes…
DS: Weirdly, I’m not a horror fan, but those kind of horror leanings are something that are very easy for me to get into. You get to play with shadow, mood, and tone. And this is such a moody story. You’ve seen the first issue and what happened in the last page. Some pretty awful stuff. I don’t know why I seem to be very good at drawing it!
Scott, since you created Duke in “Zero Year,” you’ve been slowly developing the character in your stories. What makes him such a captivating character for you?
SS: First of all, what made him captivating is this sense of somebody who wants to save the city regardless of whether Batman wants to or not, but has been inspired by Batman. He’s always been—not combative with Batman or anything—but I think he has a sense that what Robin is and what heroism is in Gotham is something that’s inspired by Batman and sort of separate from Batman. In that way, he became really interesting to think about in relation to Batman as a hero in Gotham. It’s the same way that Harper Row is a character who doesn’t want to know who you are beneath the mask, and that makes her interesting. She’ll show up and help Batman, but she never wants to know if he’s Bruce Wayne.
Duke is a character who believes that heroism and the Robin mantle can exist entirely separate from Batman himself. Then it’s figuring out what does that mean in a larger way if he passed through the phase of being Robin? Now who he is as a hero is sort of up for grabs. It’s a conversation about where does he fit? Is there a role that he can play in Gotham as a hero that hasn’t been done before?
I spoke to Geoff Johns a lot. We went back and forth, and found a way to bring up the best qualities in his personality and psychology and also fill a niche in Gotham that we’ve never seen. It became about is there a way to really plant this hero in Gotham and say this is someone you haven’t seen before—both in terms of who they are as a person and who they are as a hero. And hope that they have legs. That’s the biggest fear you always have creating new people. You love them, but then they kind of dissipate. Sometimes you don’t get to write them as much as you’d like, like me and Harper Row and Cullen. I really wanted to make sure that if we set Duke up, that he’s set up the right way and he’s his own hero for the right reasons.
Something I really like you guys are doing is showing the ups and downs of Bruce and Duke’s relationship. Even when Gordon and Alfred have turned on Batman in the story, Duke rushes out to help him. What makes Bruce and Duke’s bond ultimately so strong?
SS: He sees a lot of himself in [Batman], you know? You could argue that something even worse than what happened to Bruce happened to [Duke’s] parents, who are now Joker-ized*. They’re not just gone or irretrievably lost. And I’m NOT curing them, so you can put that out there! There’s no relief from that. They’re the evil versions of themselves who tell you all of the things you’re most afraid of about yourself all the time. I think that’s a horrifying thing. It’s one of the worst nightmare situations we could create for a young character, having the people who are supposed to believe in you keep telling you you’re nothing.
Bruce sees in this character—who fought all the way through “Superheavy” when his parents were missing, and now is determined to fight even though his parents are telling him he’s worth nothing—the essence of Batman. You take the thing that is the worst thing that could have happened to you, the worst challenge in your life, and you turn it into fuel. You don’t give up. And that’s what Gotham is about. It throws your worst fears at you, and you turn them into gasoline to say, “I’m going to drive right through them and become the hero I always knew I could be.”
Duke’s been about that from the beginning. What doubly impresses Bruce is that he’s about doing it himself, which is how Bruce was, too. It’s not about being part of a Bat family or being under Batman’s wing. It’s about inspiring other people. Working to do things singularly, not being a sidekick, but instead being your own hero and helping other people become the heroes they can be as well.
And there’s nothing comparative to Damien [the current Robin] or any of the other characters. I love those characters. And this isn’t, “This is better than that.” I think a couple of people misread what we had said in the first issue about that stuff. What Batman is saying is that, “I want to try something new that’s more about this era and this moment.” And I do think that it speaks to a modern take [as opposed] to a 90s take or a 2000s take being maybe the older program about having a sidekick. A post-9/11, modern take being Batman training people to be the heroes they know they can be on their own. And that doesn’t mean they can’t be Robin next to him for a bit, it just means the goal is very clear from go. It’s about constantly trying to get you to figure out who you are and being that hero who can be his ally rather than his sidekick.
*Editor’s Note: Duke’s parents were Joker-ized during Scott Snyder’s “Endgame” arc in Batman Vol. 2.
Declan, you mentioned theme, whether it be evil or motivation. Do you find yourself tackling each theme differently in terms of the art?
DS: Not necessarily. It always depends on what’s in the script. I’m drawing something in #3 at the moment that’s absolutely very different. You always want to try to be doing something different. You can be very weighed down by previous takes on the character and what x and y should be. You don’t want to be rehashing things you’ve seen before. It’s something I’ve quite liked about what Scott’s done on the Batman books previously. The approach is very different.
No matter what, it’s always what’s in the scripts and what the point of the story is. As somebody who’s invested in story, character is so much of what pulls me in. Something I try to do with every page is what’s the focus? What’s the focus of the emotion? And I work with that.
What can you tell me about the next issue?
SS: In the feature, it’s out of control. It’s where everything ramps up insanely. KGBeast starts chasing our heroes in a big way, and you get the return of an old character from the mythology that I think people will be really excited to see. [The issue] reveals the secret history between Harvey and Bruce that we haven’t seen before, where we’re going deeper than the conventional origin. There are a lot of big surprises.
In the backup, it’s the penultimate issue. Batman and Duke deal with Zsasz and what he means. You’ll see everything come to a head between Duke and Bruce in a way that really speaks to the idea of the black portion of the wheel in terms of Duke being faced with things that are extremely dark and extremely difficult and needing to see past them as a detective to look at human motivation and causality. To be able to say, “This is a horrible moment. I’m at my lowest. I don’t know if I can do this. When I look at why my parents act this way, why Zsasz did this, why all of it is happening the way it’s happening…” He’ll have to solve the case for him and Batman or give up and leave, so you’ll have to see. Although I know you know what he’s going to do!
It goes on all year, so he’s not going home. It would just be empty backups looking at a chair for the whole thing. But it’ll be dramatic, I promise!
DS: I personally got to draw a take on a character that I’ve had in my mind since I was a teenager. That was pretty sweet!
Thanks so much, Scott and Declan! All-Star Batman #2 is out now!
John Saavedra is an associate editor at Den of Geek. Chat with him on Twitter! Or check out all his work at his website.