NB: Robin’s costume was such an icon for me that when the issue came up of changing his costume — before it came up, when fans were asking for it, I couldn’t agree. I thought Robin’s costume was great. Of course, now I look back and recognize it needed a change. But what I was seeing was the colorful contrast with the dark Batman. That’s what worked. That’s what they retained too. It’s still got the yellow inside the cape and the red breast.
DC… I don’t know what initiated it, had been considering redesigning Robin for a long time. I remember when Mike Freidrich scripted Justice League issues…
MO: The Neal Adams-designed costume…
NB: Right. He had wings, kind of, then too [like in the Batman Family piece]. They were attached [at the wrists] and he could glide. They were considering it for a long time. They even asked the readers: ‘Should Robin have this new costume?'; you remember the end of that issue. I always said ‘Yeah! He should!’ I didn’t write in – I didn’t even think to write in. It’s funny, the stuff I didn’t do. I read the story, and looked at the art, and I’d skim the letters column, and I wouldn’t even notice some other important things that were in the books. I wasn’t that much of a comics reader then. I was more into the art and the basic story. Finally, around the Batman movies, they decided to conscript a number of artists to come up with different designs. Jim Aparo was involved, I was involved, Neal Adams was involved, Graham Nolan… there were a number of other artists that I can’t recall offhand.
MO: Many of these were assembled into [the Batman: Knightgallery book].
NB: Exactly. That included some Batman redesigns too for some special issue of Batman, Brotherhood of the Bat. I did a whole bunch of costume designs for Robin, probably more than anybody else that they asked to do. I don’t really know that for sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Neal Adams probably nailed down his costume pretty quickly because he’s got a lot of experience. I was still – compared to Neal – I was definitely wet behind the ears. There were certain things they did retain, even though they chose Neal Adams’ costume design. The ‘R’ symbol Robin’s got is almost entirely mine. Everybody else gave him the same ‘R’ symbol. I was the only one who changed that, gave it a bit more character, and I considered making it a throwing star too. And then the staff that he used [was my idea]. It made sense to me that if we’re trying to make Robin more ‘realistic’, we don’t like his stupid costume, and after I’d read [Frank Miller’s] The Dark Knight it was becoming more and more apparent that having a child running around with an adult – or a teenager – when he’s pretty reckless [is a bad idea]. Instead of giving him a gun, which you can’t do because of the mythos, I gave him a staff, which extended his reach so he could compete with adults. So that was mine too. I guess I’ll have to keep saying that, otherwise people will forget.
Jim’s [Aparo] designs were odd. Oh, man. They kind of look like ‘Ten Nights of the Beast.’ They didn’t look like Robin very much. And then there was a bunch of unnecessary design work that didn’t really serve any kind of function. But, I guess Jim was really winding down at that point. I guess if he’d done something like that in his prime, when he was really excited about comics… Thing is, Jim broke into comics pretty late in life, not until his late 30s or 40s. He’d always wanted to draw comics, and he’d approached DC as a younger man, but they weren’t biting at that time. So he went into advertising, and did advertising for 10 or 15 or 20 years, before he approached [comics] again, and that’s when his career really started. He only really got in about 10 years before he was already starting to get older, I guess. I don’t really know him personally that much, but he was one of the guys we called to do a pinup for Of Bitter Souls. I called him myself, because I had his number, and we’d been kind of friendly in the past. He’s not drawing at all anymore because his eyesight’s gotten so bad. But, you know, he’s got a house, he’s got a good family. He’s doing fine; he seems very happy. He had a good career.
I did a lot of my own comics, before I was getting published. Before Don Newton was drawing Batman, I did a story with Batman and Robin in it. Robin was coming back from college, and I liked the idea that Robin was almost Batman’s equal, so I drew him really muscular, and he had the kinda long hair, kinda the way Newton tended to draw him. It’s amazing how… a good example is when Rich Buckler drew Robin in a back-up story, when [Robin] was still in college [during] the ’70s. Lilith was in it, and there was some kind of satanic cult [Batman 241-242]. Buckler was the first one who drew Robin like a man. Neal Adams drew a great Robin, but he always drew him to look like a teenager, which what he was. But by the time he was in college… That’s the prime of your life, right? Or at least the beginning of it. And Buckler drew him like a man. It’s funny, [before that] I didn’t realize that those bare legs and those booties and everything look ridiculous on a man. But it was drawn so well. If something’s drawn well in a comic book – especially if you’re used to the costume – you don’t notice things like that. I mean, the whole idea of a guy running around in a bat-suit fighting crime without a gun – pfft! Give me a break! It’s absurd at its core! But it works in a comic book. It’s really hard to make work in a movie for exactly that reason – it’s fundamentally quite absurd in terms of stark realism. But fantasy isn’t supposed to be stark realism. That’s why there’s such a big challenge to do fantasy well in movies. Because movies – live action – fundamentally, you’re really filming real light and shadow, real physical objects. Unless you’re going to do all computer generated stuff, like The Hulk.
It’s funny, when I was a kid, I wanted to see the kind of stuff we’re seeing today, and I would have been a lot more excited. Now I’m like [shrugs] ‘Well, it’s good…’ I guess I’m jaded [laughs]. It just doesn’t have the impact it used to have. I mean, the Sci-Fi Channel, and all the sci-fi shows – a lot of them seem similar to Star Trek – when I was a kid I would’ve loved it! But now, I guess… show me something different.
MO: That said, even now that I’m much older reading it, I’m amazed at how well your Batman work has held up.
NB: Well, look at the competition it’s got these days. A lot of the Batman stories that are coming out… they just don’t have… they’re concentrating so much on minor characters, in a lot of cases, that Batman is really not the center of the book. I know as a fan I always want to see Batman in action. Alan Grant really loved Batman, and he provided that in spades. I couldn’t have asked for a better collaborator on Batman. His scripts were nice and economical, and not too many words; he got right to the point.
MO: You were able, often, in your work on Batman, to maintain a credible feel for the strip whether the menaces were supernatural or ‘street’ – Mahakala or drug dealers.
NB: That’s due to both Alan and me. Alan’s writing flowed. His distilling of his concepts is so economical, and he has so much experience writing in so many different genres, that he can blend genres together and it all works. I had a lot of experience drawing realistic stuff – fully painted work, drawing from life, drawing anything under the sun – it worked for me too. I had no problems at all depicting something otherworldly right next to street punks. In fact that was part of the joy of doing the strip. I always felt like you never knew exactly what to expect out of the next script.
MO: How much was added on your end? I’ve read since, for instance, that the eyes in the “Ecstasy” story…
NB: I lifted that from Bill Sienkiewicz. From [Daredevil: Love and War]. There was a character that was a real psycho, and he didn’t just have eyes over his head, he had eyes all over the place when he went really nutso. It was still my decision, though Alan didn’t ask for them. Alan is very gracious, I give him credit. He’s a great guy all around. I consider him one of my best friends in comics. We have similar sensibilities in a lot of ways, and where we clash, it’s just that much spicier and more fun because we’re not perfectly identical. When it comes to, for instance, any of the characters he created, I saw he created them. I drew them, but… Ventriloquist is a good example. When I saw that in the story, it was like ‘Wow! No wonder Alan [and John are] writing Batman. Nobody else should be.’ Because nobody else had ever put those two obvious icons together. The idea had been around decades before Alan [and John] took on Batman; the ventriloquist as a scary icon. There were Twilight Zone episodes, and a movie called [Dead of Night]. Nobody had done it for Batman before. It’s a brilliant idea. In fact, the fanboy part of me was disappointed; I wanted to draw all the classic characters. Looking back on it, it’s better that I was creating a bunch of new characters with Alan. I can accept creator credit too, because although Alan would give some guidelines – some more, some less – their descriptions of what they looked like, still, a picture’s worth a thousand words. There are so many ways you can depict one description.
MO: There were a number of iconic characters that came from that collaboration.
NB: There was Kadaver, his sidekick Webley – although Webley’s not that iconic. Arguably, Kadaver isn’t either. He’s been used a couple of times since. The Corrosive Man was really fun for me. He was a lot like Dr. Phosphorus. I always thought it would be neat to have them meet. I don’t think it’s ever happened. They’re very similar. I didn’t draw him like Dr. Phosphorus, although that first jumped to mind, you know, a skeleton. Instead, I had him like he was melting, like The Incredible Melting Man, that terrible sci-fi movie from the ’70s. It’s like his eyes are melting, but they’re glowing at the same time.
MO: Cornelius Stirk?
NB: Yeah, The Fear. I would put him at the very top of the characters Alan created, outside of maybe the Ventriloquist, because The Fear was a very modern character. He cooked and ate human hearts. A decade or two earlier that might have been a no-no to put in a Batman comic. It loosened up enough so that Alan could get away with that. And he did describe Cornelius pretty much as I drew him, although I gave him my own look and everything. I made his eyes a lot larger, and his teeth a lot more scraggly than [the script] necessarily called for. It would be neat to see an alternate universe version of Stirk where somebody else designed him – or any of these characters. That’s something that you can’t ever do. It’s like looking at your own artwork: you can’t be objective about it. I’ve often thought it would be so neat to go into the future – now my style’s pretty set, so it wouldn’t be that much of a surprise, really – when I was still developing if I could have gone into the future and seen my work. It’d be like ‘Wow, I could look at it objectively for once’. I still get a little twinge of that feeling when somebody contacts me and shows me a sketch I did twenty years ago that I forgot about. Or the first few seconds, it’s like I’m looking at someone else’s work, and I get to analyze it objectively. ‘So, wow, that’s why people like Breyfogle’ [laughs].
Anarky isn’t a villain, he’s his own character. He’s definitely not a superhero, although it depends on who you talk to. Alan was deep into anarchist philosophy at that point. It inspired me to… I didn’t have a computer at the time, and I didn’t type, so I was faxing him comments on the stories and the philosophy, and we began a long-winded 3-or 4 hundred page debate about philosophy in general; wide-ranging but it always went back to anarchy and stuff. That gets back to what I was talking about before, that he and I are very similar in a lot of ways in our basic outlook, and yet in the details there are a lot of differences.
For instance, I always considered myself a very mystical guy. At base, I think the ultimate truth is always going to be beyond our mind’s comprehension, and so it’s therefore a mystery. At the very heart of existence is this mystery. So I call myself a mystic. And yet, the kind of stuff that Alan was reading at the time — neo-tek philosophy, which is born out of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy, and also out of Anarchist philosophy – their main word that they use over and over again – Alan sent me some of the books too, because we were debating this stuff – to describe the parasites that were feeding on humanity and destroying our future [was] ‘mystics’. I knew what he meant by that, and I knew what they meant by it – they were talking about using superstition to control the masses through fear and ignorance. But that’s not what I meant by ‘mystic’. So our debates always came down to semantic discussion. I never convinced Alan. I never convinced him of my viewpoints, and he never convinced me of his. But we had a lot of fun trying to!
MO: What about Mr. Zsaz?
Mr. Zsaz is another good one; I should’ve thought of him. Of course, he was created so much later [than the other ones]. Zsaz and The Fear are both kind of similar in a way: they’re both ultra-modern, ultra-violent psychopaths. I think the Joker would just be a joke to them. Except that the Joker’s pretty brilliant; he’d probably put up a good maze for them to get through. [Zsaz in his cage in the early issues of Shadow of the Bat] was the way Alan described it. It was brilliant. It was obviously influenced by Silence of the Lambs, and the extreme restraints that were put on Hannibal Lector. I think it was a mistake for me to consistently make his eyes look [so dark], like he was wearing a domino mask or something. If I drew him again, I’d go back to drawing him totally realistically except for certain panels where the lighting’s just right [where] I could play off some of that weirdness. Also, I think I put too many scars on his body. He looked like he had no new places to kill people. He should be getting ready to retire; his whole body was covered in scars! Some of the artists since who have depicted him have put a lot less scars on him; I think it works better. Did he have scars all over his back too?
MO: I believe so.
NB: How did he do that? [laughs]
God, you’ve got me wanting to work with Alan so much again that I’m thinking about taking up somebody’s offer. I got offered a four-issue miniseries that Alan’s writing of Evil Ernie for Gemstone or somebody — I forget the name of the company.
MO: I really don’t like Evil Ernie, but if it’s by Grant and Breyfogle, my money’s on the table before it comes out.
NB: Thing is, he would need for me to get started on it right away; there’s no ahead time or anything like that, and I’m really booked up. It doesn’t matter what the character is, I’d like to work with Alan again.
MO: Beyond your Batman work with Grant, I’ve long been fond of the issues you did with Pete Milligan…
NB: The Idiot Root! I always loved those two issues.
MO: I’ve always been disappointed, as much as I like him, in Aparo’s two chapters of that one. I thought you pulled off the psychedelic stuff much better.
NB: Aparo probably never dropped acid. That’s a big difference [laughs]. He was an older gentleman, and I was born out of the ’60s, so I could really jive with Peter Milligan. In fact, when I met Pete at one of the Batman summit conferences back in New York, I liked him right away. At the same time, when it came to drawing style, and what we liked in art, I tended to side with Jim Aparo. But I really liked Pete’s extreme creativity, and his ability to question all assumptions and break the boundaries. I was kind of straddling two horses there. I’ve done that a lot. I did that when I’ve tried to debate things with Christians. I try and find a middle ground between extremely opposing philosophies. In my opinion, I do find it, but boy, it’s hard to convince anyone else of that [laughs]. But I’m rambling. But, yeah, The Idiot Root. I really enjoyed that. I would have liked to have been on a long run with Pete. Although what probably would have been lacking is the traditional hardcore Batman – fisticuffs – you’d have a lot of psychedelic stuff. Pretty soon, if Pete had free reign, there wouldn’t be Batman anymore.
MO: The Queen of Hearts in that story always disturbed me. There’s a panel where she’s got a really manic grin…
NB: [The Queen of Hearts] was fun to draw. To draw a woman that looked very puritanical and Victorian and yet was psychotic… it was fun to do her facial expressions. I quickly glommed on to [drawing a ‘sickly gleeful’ expression] maybe partly because of the Batman stuff, but also probably because I’ve got that element in me. I guess it’s just the modern sensibility. The modern sensibility does find glee in destruction to a certain degree. You’ve got to laugh to keep from crying, you know? Because things are getting worse all the time; they’re so much different than they were for our fathers and our grandfathers. So you’ve got to laugh to keep from crying. I guess I kind of incorporated both of those qualities. And I see it in a lot of other areas too. Often I’ll put that expression on the heroes as well as the villains. It won’t be as intense, but it’ll definitely be there. You’ll have a little bit of evil-ness; a little bit of joy in what they’re doing as well – I put that into Prime a lot. It’s not the kind of expression you’ll see in a lot of the older classical illustrators of comics. Very rarely would you see that type of expression on a face by – that kind of duplicity, or double meaning – in an expression on the face of a Jim Aparo character. They were either really noble looking or classical looking or classically evil. If there’s anything that marks modern characters – and it starts in comic books largely with Marvel – is that they’re flawed. The heroes are flawed, and the evil guys aren’t totally bad. I guess that’s a reflection of what you’re talking about. Even the Queen of Hearts wasn’t perfectly evil. She treated her hearts like little babies. Remember, she had little cribs for ‘em? [laughs]
MO: You mentioned the Joker earlier. I always was a fan of your interpretation. You did two covers for Batman, and the one story for Detective…
NB: [“Clash of Symbols”] was the only Joker story I’ve done. I wish I could have done more Joker. In fact, I wish I’d gotten the Batman gig five years later, when I was that much more developed. I look back on the stuff, and I’m proud of a lot of it. The storytelling is good; it’s dynamic, I have a lot of energy and excitement; and yet I got so much better at drawing faces just a few years later. Especially close-ups. Some of the close-ups of Bruce Wayne that I did in the Batman run; in the Detective run, make me cringe. Unless I was inking them myself.
You know, that’s another thing. I want to ask you, did you like it better when I inked my own work, or when, like, Steve Mitchell or somebody else inked my stuff?
MO: I thought it depended, really, honestly from place to place.
NB: There were definitely hairy spots in my own run when I inked my own pencils.
MO: Your covers you inked yourself, right? I think when you ink yourself, you’re much heavier on the blacks than other people are with your stuff, as a generalization.
NB: That’s true.
MO: I think that worked as both a blessing and a curse.
NB: I think a lot of that would have been ironed out if I’d gotten Batman just five years later. Up till now, still today it’s the most visible stuff I did. And I was doing it, you know, 10, 15 years ago. Except for a couple of graphic novels here or there, which were pretty recent. Like, for instance, Batman: The Abduction [and Batman: Dreamland]. That was probably the best inking, and the best production, the all-around best product – the best drawing I’ve done of Batman, in my opinion. I’m really proud of that.
MO: I was really struck by your use of blacks in that one especially. I cared much less for the inks in Abduction.
NB: There’s a little note about that you’d probably be interested in. About halfway through the book, I started seeing the inks from [John Hodgkins]. He’s a good inker. I thought the end result was quite nice. What I noticed was that he was changing my shadows radically. There was really no reason for me to be putting down really detailed pencils and indicating where all the shadows are if he was going to disregard them so consistently as he did. So I complained to Denny O’Neil, my editor, about it, and I said ‘I don’t mind the result of what he’s doing, it’s just that there’s no point in me putting that much effort into it. I’m just going to be doing contour drawings for the rest of the book, and let him put him put in the shadows wherever he wants.’ And it worked fine. The rest of the book looks just as good as the first half of the book. It took a little getting used to.
Most any artist who can ink their own work prefers to ink their own work. That’s something that’s changed at DC. It’s funny, when I first started at DC, very shortly after I started drawing Batman, they were happy to let me ink my own stuff. For, like, at least a year I was inking every issue. I proved that I could do the deadlines, and yet, a decade later, when I was a better artist, and I could still meet deadlines – if anything I could meet the deadlines even better – DC had some kind of a cross-the-board bureaucratic decision to not let almost any pencillers ink their own pencils. I could never get a straight answer. Well, I got what sounds like a straight answer: ‘We don’t think you’re your best inker’. And that sounds reasonable, except that I would talk to the inkers that they assigned, and the inkers would tell me ‘No! I think you’re better at inking your own pencils.’ [laughs]. I don’t know.
What [former DC editor] Mike Gold said was that it’s just bureaucratic mentality, and it was an across the board decision to make sure everything was done on time, because a lot of people were falling behind. The bureaucracy does make exceptions; I would have been an exception since I always made my deadlines. But they wouldn’t count that as an exception. That was always a thorn in my side.
MO: I’m sorry to hear that.
NB: Yeah. But I’m inking my own stuff now.
MO: What’s the most important element of comics to you? Is it the finished art?
NB: [Page design is] the most important part of comics for me. That’s where the story and the art comes together for the first time. Scott McCloud, in his book Understanding Comics, called that ‘structure,’ and it’s the middle number in the process of building comics. It’s kind of the heart of comics, in a way. And that’s where I enjoy comics the most. I mean, I enjoy inking, and I enjoy pencilling, but the thumbnails are where it’s the most fun, because that’s when I realize that the whole visual impact is dependent on the design of the page. I think my strength as a comic book creator is in storytelling, in the structure part, the thumbnails, the design of the page. I think it’s the most important part for everybody, whether or not they recognize it. You can have some really talented guys — the classical illustrators of the past — Alex Raymond, even a lot of Frank Frazetta’s stuff. You can’t really cut down anything Frazetta did, but it’s so classical, and they hadn’t really experimented with form yet, that I want to see it opened up a bit more when I see that old stuff. My earlier stuff wasn’t like that. I could show you stuff I did when I was 14, and it was six panels a page, square panels… I guess Frank Miller was a really big influence. Frank is a really good storyteller.