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Reinventing Batman

On the first page of the recent Batman No 24, the Caped Crusader does not swoop high above Gotham City, and the Joker does not stalk dark alleys. But it is one of the best moments ever in a Batman comic. In this tender scene, Bruce Wayne’s butler and mentor, Alfred, is giving him a […]


January 12, 2014 11:43:18 pm

On the first page of the recent Batman No 24, the Caped Crusader does not swoop high above Gotham City, and the Joker does not stalk dark alleys. But it is one of the best moments ever in a Batman comic. In this tender scene, Bruce Wayne’s butler and mentor, Alfred, is giving him a pre-battle buzz cut.

“How do I look?” he asks Alfred.

“Aerodynamic, sir.”
That haircut and exchange capture the essence of the bond between the two men in just five panels. It also distills how the writer Scott Snyder has reinvented Batman in the past two years, deepening and humanising the Dark Knight’s myth — in the making since 1939 — like no one since Frank Miller in the 1980s.

“It’s essential, the lifeblood of our company, to reinvent cultural icons,” says Dan DiDio, a publisher of DC Entertainment, referring to Batman. “And Scott’s tone is unique. It has more of a horror feel. His Joker plays more like a slasher movie.”

Snyder, 37, began as a writer of short fiction, publishing in literary magazines like Tin House and Zoetrope. His first collection, Voodoo Heart (Dial, 2006), got starred reviews in Publishers Weekly and Booklist, and Stephen King compared it to T Coraghessan Boyle’s debut collection, If the River Was Whiskey.

But comic books were his first and truest love. “There hasn’t been a better time in comics,” Snyder says. “There’s a more literate readership now.”

One thing that sets apart Snyder’s Batman (which is drawn with subtle power by Greg Capullo) is how he layers the labyrinth of history — both of Gotham and of Bruce Wayne’s family. “History is a touchstone of everything I do,” says Snyder, who grew up in New York.

Snyder’s grandparents helped cultivate his taste for history and tale-telling as a boy by taking him to antiques shows. “If you got something,” he recalls, “you had to make up a story about the object.”

Jim Lee, DC’s other publisher, says, “It feels so elegant and organic the way Scott has added new concepts to a decades-old mythology.”

That approach is on display in the comic’s current arc, Batman: Zero Year, which focuses on how Bruce Wayne became “the Bat”. Snyder will also oversee a new weekly Batman series coming this spring, Batman Eternal.

But before Batman, Snyder showed off his comics-writing chops on American Vampire, which won a 2011 Eisner Award for best new series. Skinner Sweet is not some sun-fearing, caped aristocrat, but a down-and-dirty American vampire, who is powered by the sun, not afraid of it.

The comic grew out of his impatience with current incarnations of vampires — they’ve “been turned into such romantic figures”. He decided to counter the image with a rough-and-tumble homegrown vampire, kind of a Clint Eastwood with fangs.

The way Snyder uses language also sets him apart from other comics writers — appropriate enough for a writer who received a master’s degree in fine arts from Columbia University and who teaches a graduate course in comics writing at Sarah Lawrence College. Given his more literary style, it is not a surprise that a keen sense of the personal animates his superheroes and anti-heroes. Snyder says that the recently published graphic novel Batman: Death of the Family, in which the Joker targets everyone Batman holds dear, grew out of the vulnerability he felt when his wife was pregnant with their second son.

Asked what he liked about Snyder’s take on vampires, King said: “The ambition of it. He wanted to use the vampire the way Coppola used the mob in the Godfather movies.” In fact, King liked the concept so much that he (with Snyder) wrote Sweet’s origin story.

Referring to the importance of keeping pop-cultural myths up-to-date, King said, “These archetypes are what we have to hand down to the next generation.”

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