One of the big questions we’re always asked whenever there’s a new superhero movie is what comics should someone who only knows a character from TV or movies check out. Sometimes this question is easier to answer than other times, but with The Batman, it’s an incredibly easy answer. Batman: The Imposter, which is now available in hardcover from DC Comics, reads like a direct sequel to the new movie. It isn’t one, to be clear, but if all you know about the character and his world is what you just saw on the screen? Then The Imposter is a perfect next step.
There’s a good reason for that. Batman: The Imposter is written by Mattson Tomlin, who is an uncredited writer on The Batman screenplay. The Imposter takes place in year three of Batman’s career, in a very grounded Gotham City, and features some similarly grounded reinventions of some of the Dark Knight’s lesser known villains. It’s a terrific, atmospheric reinterpretation of the Dark Knight’s early days with art by Andrea Sorrentino. Fans of The Batman will definitely want to check it out.
Here’s what he told us about this new take on Batman’s early days…
I’m curious about what your ideal version of Batman is like? What is the version of Batman that brought you to Gotham City in the first place? And how has that informed your creative time with the character?
Mattson Tomlin: What a big question. You know, I think that my entry was definitely Batman: The Animated Series. There’s something about that show. It was for kids, but it was so adult. He’s a scary “I am the night, I am vengeance” kind of guy, but also a real empath, who cared about people in a way, that’s kind of disarming and not so on-the-nose. It really made use of all of the characters in this wonderful way that only the comics otherwise managed to do.
Batman can be so many different things. I think that’s why he’s such an enduring character. At this point, the version that I like the most, and that I respond to the most is the one that feels real, that feels like this could actually happen… I love the first hour of Batman Begins. Because in that hour, you kind of feel like this could really happen. I just have to find the right freighter shipping container to China, and I’ll be well on my way to becoming Batman. It feels so much like a domino effect where this could be something that happens in this world. That’s a really exciting version.
That realism permeates every page of The Imposter. Within this very grounded, realistic Batman story, there are also elements of the wider Batman world and teases of what may be to come in lots of different ways. When did this story first start kind of percolating in your brain?
It’s kind of a weird one to talk about in the right way. It’s not completely unknown that I spent a little bit of time working on the new movie that Matt Reeves directed and co-wrote with Peter Craig. I don’t have credit on that movie, so in some ways, I kind of have to pretend like I’m not a part of that. But [The Imposter] was very much born out of my time getting to work alongside Matt Reeves and going, okay, there is so much of this very real version of Batman that I really respond to and love. And looking at what the comics were doing and are doing, there are a lot of more fantastical versions of Batman on the page right now and over the last 15 years or so in a way that I think is really great and has that kind of almost Batman as a swashbuckler feel. But there aren’t a lot of Batman: Year Ones.
I love Batman: Earth One for this reason, because it felt so real. It just kind of felt like there’s room for some more of those…[and] the movie is so much Matt Reeves, and there’s ideas that I was having that don’t apply to the movie. So I found myself wondering what would just my version look like? What are some of the things that I would do?
One of the first things that came to mind was how I love the characters of Alfred and Jim Gordon. I think that those are interesting, valid characters. But at the same time, they can be narrative crutches. They can be the characters that just make everything okay or show up and save the day and offer the words of counsel when they need to. I’ve never seen a version of Batman where those characters are taken out of the equation in an emotionally devastating way. You have Batman Beyond where those characters are dead. But you don’t have the version where they were never really there to begin with. Once you take out some of the pieces and start to make the whole fixture wobbly, that puts you into a new narrative space that for me was kind of like, despite the fact that it’s 82 years old, there’s still a way to make this feel new and different.
This is obviously outside of traditional DC continuity, but do you see a world where you could continue this story? Would you revisit the world of The Imposter and get into say, the fourth year of Bruce’s career?
God, I would love to. I think that there are so many different paths to go down. And just by taking the rug out from from under the character in the couple of ways that The Imposter does, I’ve found myself thinking, okay, that’s the bar in terms of emotional realism, and you can’t start walking back from that.
I spent a lot of time in the Imposter universe thinking about what the hell Robin would look like. Just kind of thinking about this guy taking on a surrogate child and what that all means. We’ve seen so many different interpretations of it and …there’s a lot of darkness there, and also a lot of light. I haven’t sat down to actually write that story yet. But I certainly find myself daydreaming about what it might look like in this universe. This kind of take on the character is going to feel different from some of the other things that we’ve seen before.
Frankly, it scares me, because I know it’s territory that could upset a lot of people in the same way that taking Alfred out the way that I did. I knew that that was gonna upset a lot of people and at the same time it feels narratively earned. I think that I just have to kind of go there, and if people hate it, they hate it. Otherwise, they might appreciate that there’s something different here. So yeah, that’s a long way of saying I would love to do lots more in this universe.
One of the first pages of the book is when Leslie Tompkins is talking about Bruce’s OCD and anxiety and the idea of Batman having the kind of everyday mental illnesses and anxieties that drive him to do the things that he does. It’s very new. Have you had any experience with that?Was it borne out of any conversations you had with people?
Yeah, definitely. I mean, I am certainly in my share of therapy to start off with. I wouldn’t go so far as to say “this is the way to make a mental illness a superpower.” That’s not really what it’s saying. This is a character that’s completely born out of trauma and completely born out of some some really visceral dark pain. You can just kind of look at that as, “oh, he got angry, and now he’s taking out his anger in this way.” But there are other things that happen other than anger.
It’s not that it’s superhuman, it’s that it is a coping mechanism. So then leaning into certain realities of that…I don’t think that we talk enough about the mental health of Bruce Wayne. On the one hand, it’s visually cool and exciting to dress up as a bat and go beat people up and at the same time, that’s deranged. The point that so many creators and fans bring up about how Bruce Wayne should be in Arkham along with all of the villains, I don’t necessarily disagree with that. So it just kind of felt like, lean into that a little bit more, let’s be a little bit more honest about what’s going on with this guy.
The look of the book is like a perfect blend of the Batman: Year One aesthetic. I feel like you can see some of that David Mazzucchelli influence, especially in the colors and the backgrounds. But it also has those very modern, particularly cinematic costume influences. How did you work with Andrea Sorrentino on this? Especially some of these spreads are just bonkers, the way they’re laid out.
Andrea is a wizard and a genius, and I feel so lucky to have gotten to work with them….a lot of the time I was just getting out of Andrea’s way. He knows how to stick the landing with these pages. With a lot of the spreads, they’re so detailed, and so mindbogglingly intricate and perfectly executed. That’s not me writing that…. So it instead it really is going, “this is going to be a double page spread that is showing Bruce and Blair’s detective mode where I really need us to see that they are thinking about the same problem in similar ways. On the top left, I think we’re seeing Bruce Wayne, and we’re seeing him tackling this problem….On the bottom right, there’s Blair here…”
That’s about as descriptive as I would get in my writing. Sometimes Andrea would take all of that and add to it in a way that really kind of made it mindbogglingly way more awesome. Other times he would take none of it and instead come up with something 1000 times better. There was never ever, ever a time where I had written something and Andrea delivered something worse. The script was always the worst thing about this thing.
There are a lot of villains in this that aren’t really recognizable as villains. They’re not the antagonists of the piece. In particular, the stuff with Ratcatcher is heartbreaking, almost from the minute he appears on panel. How did you decide on including Ventriloquist, Ratcatcher, Squid… you mentioned Firebug…how did you come to populating this story with these particular characters?
You know, on some level, I was feeling like I’ve got to earn my way into respect in the comic community. I have this tremendous opportunity for my first book to be a Batman book because of the film side of my career. And I love comic books, I really do. I didn’t want to just go in and be like, “okay, guys, here’s the Joker.” I don’t feel like I’ve really earned the right to play with those toys in a certain way….If I put Two-Face or the Joker or whoever in this book, it’s going to be compared to all those other stories where what I’m really interested in is the psychology of Bruce Wayne…so for me, it just kind of felt like I can earn some street cred here, by not just going to the big star, the big story. So let me populate it with all these other characters that don’t usually get the spotlight on them.
What I find amazing is the level of detail with the world building that you’ve put in place here, whether it’s determining where these villains are in their evolution, or just where Gotham City is, in relation to having a Batman. There’s there’s a lot of stuff in here about the economic consequences of what happens when there’s somebody like Batman operating. There are hints of a class war element, there’s graffiti that speaks to very timely, real world elements. Is there a Bible for the world that you’ve created? How much of the previous two years of Batman’s life do you already have in your head?
A lot of it. I can’t say that there’s a document sitting on my computer that makes it all easily digestible, but I certainly know some of the major checkpoints that have happened. If you kind of read between the lines you get to experience quite a bit of that backstory in The Imposter. It just kind of felt like [I had to] make it feel realized and lived in because that’s any piece of Batman or even comic book media that really works…so every choice was kind of in the name of making it feel like it’s real.
Where were you in terms of your involvement with the Batman movie when you were working on this? Had you already done your bit on that project before?
It’s tough to talk about because of the the Writers Guild of it all. I had a wonderful time working with my friend and then found myself in this place where I was like, “man, I love Batman and I’m still thinking about it and I have all this brain energy that I’ve put into it, and nowhere to put any of this stuff.” So it was a while later, months after any of the time that I had with Matt Reeves. It then became, “actually, I think that there’s something that I could do here that could kind of be its own thing” and give me my time in Gotham where I really can go “this is what I have to say about this character.” And in a way that was really rewarding and lovely for me to get to go into it on my own terms like that. But it was definitely disconnected from from any of [the movie stuff].
Are there parallels to the themes explored in the movie?
Yeah, definitely. I mean, I think that there’s a definitely a tonal vibe between the two…and yet the stories, the interpretations, the population of characters, all that stuff couldn’t be more different.
This is such an intense book, but do you think there’s ever a point in this character’s career where Batman becomes well adjusted? Where he’s able to make peace with some of these more troublesome elements of himself, but is still able to continue his career? Because all through The Imposter, Leslie Tompkins is making appeals to Bruce Wayne as a “force of nature.” I don’t know that I’ve seen that before. Is there a point where these two elements can resolve but Batman can continue to be Batman? Or does Batman only exist if those two things are in conflict?
It’s a great question. I don’t think that Bruce Wayne can be at peace if he is Batman…[There’s] that whole thing of Bruce Wayne using his money, like he could just put all that money into funding Gotham. And you can’t do that if the whole system is corrupt, because money is the ultimate corruptor. At a certain point, you do have to take a sledgehammer to these systems, if they’re so fundamentally broken, that all the money is doing is feeding into the cancer. But then the question becomes, when is the sledgehammer just pummeling dust? And at what point do other tools need to come back in?
I think that one of the great things about Batman is that sometimes he is right about when to pummel and sometimes he’s not. And for this iteration of the character, I mean, look, I got the guy to go to therapy for once! I think we should just kind of praise him for a second that he spent a couple of minutes on Leslie’s couch like that. But in the long form of it, I don’t know that it’s a really good question of how much of this is in the name of good, how much of it is you being an adrenaline junkie? Where are the lines here? Can Batman just exist in a bubble on his own? I don’t know. My interpretation is that it’s a pretty dark thing to be doing. No version of it is going to be healthy.