This is a transcript of the Sept. 3 edition of Working. These transcripts are lightly edited and may contain errors. For the definitive record, consult the podcast.
Jacob Brogan: You’re listening to Working, the podcast about what people do all day. I’m Jacob Brogan. In past seasons of Working, we’ve talked to people in Baltimore and Detroit about their jobs, but for the next few episodes, we’ll be taking you to a more imaginary destination: Gotham City. We’re sitting down with the writer and artists behind the comic book Batman to learn a little bit about how their stories of the Dark Knight come together from concept to execution. Don’t worry if you’re not a comic book fan, these are stories about the intersection of creativity and collaboration, and we’re really excited to share them with you.
For the first episode of our series, we spoke with the Eisner Award–winning Tom King, who writes Batman, along with a bunch of other great comics. He recently penned a story where Batman proposed to Catwoman, and we’ll be focusing a bit on that sequence. King has always been a comic book nerd, but before he became a professional writer, he spent years in the Central Intelligence Agency recruiting spies in Iraq. He tells us a little about that, but he’s mostly going to lead us through his writing process, sharing how he plans out a script, how he tailors his descriptions and the other elements of his writing to the inclinations of the artists that he’s working with, and what it’s like to review art as an issue comes together. And, of course, he also explores the challenge of trying to do something new when you’re writing the adventures of a character with an almost 80-year history.
Then, in a Slate Plus extra, we let some Slate staffers ask King their most pressing questions about Batman himself. If you’re a member, enjoy bonus segments and interview transcripts from Working, plus other great podcast exclusives. Start your free trial at Slate.com/workingplus.
What is your name and what do you do?
Tom King: My name is Tom King and I am a comic book writer.
Brogan: Tell us about the comic books that you write. What kind of comic book writer are you?
King: I should say I’m an Eisner–winning comic book writer. I just won two Eisners a week ago.
Brogan: Award name for Will Eisner, who’s one of the greats of the medium.
King: Yeah, it’s like the nerd Academy Awards.
Brogan: Yeah, that’s a good one. Congratulations.
King: Yeah. No, I’m on my way to an EGOT.
King: I write Batman for DC Comics and I’m known for The Vision for Marvel Comics and I also wrote a book called Omega Men and a book called the Sheriff of Babylon for Vertigo Comics.
Brogan: Let’s take a step back. I mean, we’re going to talk today about Batman. This is the first episode in a series about how Batman gets made, but before we get to that, you haven’t always been a comic books writer, I think it’s fair to say. You had a life before this. What did you do before you made your way into the comic books world?
King: I took a very bizarre route. Coming out of college, I’d interned in Marvel and DC in college. I was a super-nerd growing up. I was one of those guys that couldn’t throw a ball in a hoop or run using my legs, and so I had trouble making friends. Very typical, stereotypical nerd, and I just read comics to sort of escape from all that alienation and all that stuff. And so I wanted to be a comic book writer and I graduated from college in 2000, and the industry collapsed. Marvel went bankrupt, famously. So I went to do my second thing, I had a nice Jewish mother who sort of said, “Be a lawyer or a doctor, don’t be a comic book writer.” So I was like, “I’ll be a lawyer because math is hard.” I worked for the Justice Department. They had a little program that helped cancer victims, and then 9/11 happened and, like a million other people, I tried to do what I could, and then I joined the CIA.
King: So, that’s the weird part.
Brogan: In 2001, you joined the CIA?
King: In 2001, I joined the CIA, yeah. It takes about a year to get your clearance, so think of it as fall of 2002.
Brogan: Where did that take you?
King: I was a nerd. I hadn’t done anything. I literally remember being in my first interview and I was sitting next to a guy who had a Ph.D. in eight languages. And on the other side was a Special Forces dude.
Brogan: This guy knows about Batman.
King: Totally does. I thought, I was good with information—that’s what comics are, it’s just information and understanding a world—I was, like, I’ll be one of those connect-the-dots kind of guys. But I just sort of made my way through the process, whatever. Psychological profiles sort of became … clearly, I should be what they call a case officer, an operations officer, which are the guys that go overseas and try to recruit spies. And I was counter-terrorism focused ’cause that was the whole point of joining after 9/11. So I did counter-terrorism work overseas and I served in Iraq in sort of the Afghan-Pak theater.
Brogan: That, I know, informed some of your work really directly. The Sheriff of Babylon book we mentioned briefly earlier takes place in Iraq in 2004, 2005, something like this.
King: Oh, yeah. It informs all of … I mean, I can’t talk about it directly.
King: You already see me hesitating because it’s all … super-security protected and all that stuff.
Brogan: But does that intelligence work inform the way you approach comics writing?
King: Oh, yeah, every day. I’m lucky that I actually, in my 20s, I sort of did something crazy and I can sort of draw on that as a writer. And, you know, having gone through that … And I come from a generation that we’re 15 years into this conflict and so this sort of generation of kids who went off and did this and came back and tried to make their lives after that, I’m part of that. I try to sort of capture that in my writing.
Brogan: Mm-hmm (affirmative). How did you then make your way into comics? Back into comics, since it had been a passion to begin with.
King: So, I was … I really loved that job. I’m so proud of what I had done in the CIA, but it sort of came to the point… I’d spent a lot of time away from my wife and we’d gotten married, I’d proposed to her the week before I left for Iraq, and she was pregnant. We were having a kid. And I sort of had this realization that I couldn’t be the CIA officer I wanted to be and the father I wanted to be. I’d grown up without a dad and I kind of didn’t want to repeat that for my own kids. I mean, some people can do it. Some people can do the balance. I just personally could not, because to be a great CIA officer I wanted to be 24-hour committed and I couldn’t do that with having a kid. So, I was like, “Well, what else do I love that I want to do?” I’m at that turning point in your life, and I was like, “I love comics, I want to be a comic book writer.” So, I took a year off and I wrote a novel at night about superheroes. became Mr. Mom. I went from being a CIA officer, literally, in a weekend. On Friday I left, Monday I took over, my wife went back to work. She’s a lawyer. And I changed diapers and lived among the nannies in my neighborhood, and pushed a stroller for two years, and I wrote at night.
Brogan: You live in Washington, D.C.?
King: Yeah, I live in Washington, D.C., here. Yeah.
And at night I wrote a novel between, very strict, between midnight and three in the morning every day.
King: Five days a week. I was lucky I got an agent. Got published by Simon & Schuster. And then I was a writer.
Brogan: So, you wrote this novel. You published it.
Brogan: You’re now writing a different kind of fiction.
King: Well, my novel was a huge flop. You have to keep that in mind. They paid me very nice money for it, and Simon & Schuster released it, and then nobody read it. It’s called, A Once Crowded Sky. You can buy it for a penny, I’m sure, somewhere out there. Please, pay as little as possible for it.
Brogan: Please pay as much for Tom’s book as possible.
King: No. I’ll never get to the royalty mark, so it’s OK.
Yeah, so it was … I’m proud of the book, it’s very ambitious and nerdy, but nobody bought it. So then I was sort of stuck out there, where you’re like, “I’m halfway” … I was like, “Oh, I’m a writer now, I’m a great …” I remember I was a best-selling author for, like, three hours. The A.V. Club had written a review of—don’t read the A.V. Club, read Slate.
Brogan: A.V. Club is OK too.
King: OK. They’re OK? Good.
King: The A.V. Club had written a review. They were like, “This is the next Watchmen.” And I watched on Amazon, ’cause on Amazon, if you’re a stupid obsessed author, which all authors are stupid obsessed authors, you can watch how big your book is and how many people … And I watched it sort of go up and up and up on the ladder and I was like, “Yes! This is happening.” And then I watched it sort of crest and go down and down and down, and it never recovered. It was the one bump. So, then you’re like, “OK, well, I’m sort of a writer, ’cause I got paid once and I have a novel and it’s in bookstores.”
King: But I still am not … have enough money to sort of support my family. And selling a first book is really hard. Selling a second book after a first book failed is even harder.
King: Because the publisher’s like, the first time, they’re like, “Wow! You could be the next big thing.” And then you’re like, “Oh, you’re not the next big thing. What were we thinking?”
King: So, I wrote a novel, tried to sell it, it didn’t sell. And then I sort of went into … you know, I’ve written superhero books, I knew how to do superheroes.
Brogan: And this first novel was about—
King: It was about superheroes, yeah. It was about a bunch of superheroes who all lose their powers. It was an easy metaphor. And so I sent my book in to every editor at every comic book place I could find and I was ignored by hundreds of editors. And one nice editor named Karen Berger, who is the founder of Vertigo Comics, who discovered people like Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, these are nerd names—
Brogan: A legendary editor … is really responsible, shaped comics, mainstream comics, especially, as we know them now.
King: Sort of took the energy of mainstream comics and turned that into an adult medium, basically, in the ’80s.
Brogan: A lot of literary ambition in the work.
King: Yeah. She took me off a pile and came up to me at a comic convention. I used to go to these comic conventions and try to hand-sell my books, anything to sort of drive up these sales. I did this for years. And you’d go with piles of books. I’d give out free magnets. People would come up to me and say, “Hey, we want a magnet.” “Can I interest you in this book?” It’s like selling a used car, it’s horrible. And she came up to me at one of these conventions, asked me to pitch her something, pitch her a series. I was like, “Oh my God, this is my big chance.” And I pitched it and it just fell out like it’s … I don’t know if you’ve ever pitched a story or an idea to someone, you can just see it on their face that they’re hating it as you’re saying it, it was one of those experiences. It was just like, argh. And she, I think, probably more out of pity than anything else, was like, “OK, here’s an assistant editor you can do a little eight-page story.” It was probably just because she was embarrassed and wanted to get out of the conversation.
Brogan: Oh, no.
King: And I did the eight-page story and the whole career took off from there.
Brogan: What was that story about?
King: It was in a little anthology called Time Warp. I still like the story. It was a story of, ’cause it had to be a time-travel story, so it was a story of the old thing: Would you go back and kill Hitler? And it was story of if someone had answered yes to that and gone back and killed Hitler. It was that, but it was told from the sister’s point of view. Hitler had a sister. And it was just like, what if you were a random little girl and you were five and your brother was eight and a time traveler came and shot him in the head and disappeared. And then you would go through … and so in the background, of course, history kept getting better, but her life kept getting more and more miserable ’cause she couldn’t explore, so it was just the dichotomy between this sort of the world finding its own utopia while her world sort of fell in hell, and she was sort of suffering for our sins, kind of thing.
Brogan: I’m going to track that down.
King: Yeah. That’s good.
Brogan: How did you end up on Batman? I mean, I assume it wasn’t like … What year was this when you published this story?
King: That would be 2013, ’14. Around that area.
Brogan: And now it’s 2017.
King: I was quick, I was quick.
Brogan: Your career took off pretty quickly.
King: Yeah. It was nice.
Brogan: How did you make your way to Batman? What’s the arc there?
King: So, I had proposed … I was pitching … So, once the eight-page story went well, they’re like pitch a series again and actually take some time to actually come up with something good. And I had pitched a series that’s now, years later, in the process of being turned into a television show. But I pitched it and it got past Vertigo, which is sort of an imprint of DC Comics, and got up to the head of DC Comics. And they’re like, “Who the hell is Tom King? No.” And I pitched a second series … At that point, I was, again, desperate, again, because, again, I was kind of a working writer but kind of not, still changing diapers, and I was like, OK. I didn’t ever want to write about the war ’cause I just felt it was cheap. It was kind of a, I don’t know, violation. Also, I just didn’t want to revisit it. I didn’t want to just have the war in my head for so long. But I knew that was the one thing about me that people would always be sort of attracted to. So it was a very sell-out sort of moment where I was like, “OK, I’m gonna pitch something that’s about the war.”
Brogan: When you say war, you mean in Iraq?
King: Yeah, in Iraq. Yeah. So I had pitched Sheriff of Babylon as a series. It was called Sheriff of Baghdad originally. And I pitched it to both my literary editor and to Vertigo Comics, and they both said yes. So I started work on the novel. The Vertigo process went through and same thing happened where it was like, “This is brilliant, we want it, we want to publish this. This is going to be great.” And then it got to the head of DC Comics, like, “Who the hell is Tom King?” And threw it out.
And in the meantime, I wrote the whole novel and …
Brogan: Your third novel at this point?
King: My third novel, yeah. And, of course, it was the unpublished novel every novelist writes before the first one. So this is fourth novel now.
King: Which, oh my God, they’re so horrible. There’s some good moments in it. And then I got lucky. It’s … good to be good, it’s better to be lucky. My editor, who was helping me with all this stuff, got promoted to be head of the Batman office. Mark Doyle, a brilliant guy. And he said, “OK, I finally have the power to hire you on something where the head of DC can’t [inaudible].” So he hired me on this little book called Grayson, which was a spy show about Robin when he grows up to Grayson. A spy comic book. And I’d been in the CIA so he was kind of … And he matched me with a writer, so I was co-writing it. A guy named Tim Seeley, who had been writing comics for 10 years and taught me everything. And the two of us went off running into this Grayson series. And that was my first sort of superhero.
Brogan: So you were operating kind of in the Batman playing field now. So we’re trending toward—
King: We’re getting closer to Batman.
King: So then I was writing the Batman sidekick character. And I was writing very weird scripts. I wrote my first script backwards and I was trying to use all these … You know, you—
Brogan: When you say “backwards,” you mean the story—
King: The story went backwards, yeah. Like a Memento kind of thing. I was using … I’m super influenced by Alan Moore and Frank Miller, if anyone’s nerdy enough to know those names.
Brogan: I think probably some of our audience is.
King: All right. And I was basically stealing all of their stuff as I could, which is the best way to start writing, is to steal. And it got noticed, it got attention, and sort of it rose me up enough that I got the offer for Vision. That was the big game-changer, Vision.
Brogan: This was a book from Marvel that’s about—
King: A book from Marvel, yeah.
Brogan: About this android, played by Paul Bettany in the films, who moves to Arlington, Virginia, and things go weird for his life.
King: Yeah. So I pitched Vision as … They asked me … they came and they said, “OK, we want you to work on a new Marvel series.” And I was like, “Oh my God, it’s going to be another spy thing.” I was so sick of sort of being, like, you’re in a box, you’re the spy guy. And it was Vision, it was an android, and … I thought about what can you do with an android that’s interesting. And I was like, “Oh, wow. I’ll give him a wife.” I was like, ah, that’s just Bride of Frankenstein. It’s been done. I was like, how about a wife and kids? I was like, he makes his own wife and kids. That’s kind of messed up. And once you get to the point where you’re like, kind of messed up, then you have a good pitch.
So, I pitched that, and I wrote it. And I had been writing this side series, Omega Man, which it got canceled. And I sort of had this feeling that everything would go wrong and this would eventually be canceled. So, it was in one of those places where it’s a character nobody cares about and you think you’re going to get canceled so you take a big risk. So, I told it in this sort of weird way. And it got a lot of attention and sort of a lot of praise. And that’s when people said, “Oh, this guy can really write.” And that’s what I won the Eisner for was for The Vision series. That’s sort of been the gem of my career.
Brogan: It’s a terrific book.
Then, at this point, you’ve written now something like 30 issues of Batman.
Brogan: That comes out twice a month?
King: It comes out twice a month, yeah. So then they decided they’d have the same … Batman had had one writer, Grant Morrison, for five years. He was a famous writer. Then it had another writer for five years, which was Scott Snyder, another famous writer. And Scott was finally leaving the book and they needed sort of a new person. And so they had in their possession, they had a guy who had written Dick Grayson, so he knew the Bat universe, and had done a big high-praise book The Vision. So, it was sort of … “Tom, do you want this book?”
Brogan: Did they just offer it to you or did you have to pitch your take on Batman to them?
King: No, they offered. I was in a really lucky position at that time where my star was rising and I wasn’t under contract. So Marvel and DC were both coming at me at the same time, which are the two big comic book companies. So it’s kind of like being a baseball player with the two teams interested in you. So I was … it was a very nice position where they sort of came to me, and they’re like, “Here, this is the offer to get you to stay.”
Brogan: You mentioned that you find yourself kind of imitating and referring back to Alan Moore, who’s famous for a Batman story called “The Killing Joke,” among other things. Among many other things, Watchmen, which you also mentioned earlier. And a lot of other books. And Frank Miller, whose Dark Knight Returns in the mid-’80s was really sort of one of the seminal touchstones of comics becoming what we recognize them to be now. Mainstream comics kind of breaking through into the popular consciousness.
This is a character with an almost 80-year history. Did you have to dig into that backlog of all of these stories? The kind of bizarre detective stuff from the ’40s, the campier stuff from the ’60s, the more grim and gritty stuff of the ’80s. What was your … what kind of research did you do as you were starting to write this book? I guess that’s what I’m trying to ask.
King: Yeah. That’s the problem with coming to Batman than coming to any other character. Mark Waid, another comic book writer, who’s sort of famous as the biggest nerd in comics, he’s the guy you want to take to a trivia contest. We had dinner and he sat down and he said, “You know something about Batman that people are scared of?” I was like, “What is it?” He’s like, “There’s no character in fiction that has had more written about him than Batman.” I was like, “That’s impossible.” He says, “Think about like Sherlock Holmes, Superman. He’s had the most sort of fictional presence of anyone in terms of stories in every single medium you can think of.” And then I’m like, “Well, what about like Jesus and all that,” not that he’s a fictional character, but possibly. And then he’s like, “Even then there’s some competition. Batman’s just everywhere. Like every story, every aspect of him has been explored.” And that’s just such an intimidating place to start from.
And I think in my first Batmans I was a little intimidated by that. And, of course, I had been a nerd growing up, so I sort of knew the basics and I had read the stuff. And so I went back and read sort of the great Batman runs. I read the Marshall Rogers run. I read the beginning of the Bob Kane/Bill Finger stuff. I went back and read the Frank Miller stuff and the Jim Aparo stuff. I read sort of my favorites.
Brogan: The highlights.
King: I actually think that was probably a mistake in retrospect, because, you know, you get intimated by it. And you start to think of Batman as a way to make your audience happy. A way to sort of … like, “Oh, this is what they respond to, and they don’t respond to that,” and you start to see sort of, “Oh, there must be a formula for writing this character and if I can just hit all those beats I’ll be OK.” And so when you start out, you start writing the formula. And that seemed to me, in retrospect, was a failure. I mean, I’m proud of my first Arkham and my first issue, but I think I’m trying too hard and I’m trying to reach someone, to reach an audience, rather than reach myself, which is kind of an arrogant way to say it. Because what eventually you find out in comics, or in any medium, is the only thing unique you can bring to a character who’s been around for 80 years is yourself. That’s the only thing different between me writing and someone else writing is, I’m me. On a tautology level.
When I first … so to get into the character what I had to do was connect with him. And I wasn’t connecting with him, I was just trying to make my audience happy. And eventually when I could connect with him and see in him what’s interesting about him, what makes him special, that’s when I started writing it well, I think.
Brogan: When you’re coming up with a new storyline, a new script, when you’re starting out an arc with Batman or … beginning to put pen to paper, as it were, with the new issue, what are the first steps? How do you get started?
King: I work a little weird. I don’t know if I’m typical of a lot of writers. A lot of writers use outlines. They have sort of big, detailed outlines. I don’t believe in outlines. I don’t believe in … I believe in sort of outlining it in my head, and I think sort of what I forget wasn’t worth remembering. I don’t know if that’s a good philosophy, but it’s sort of the philosophy I stick to. If I have an idea in the middle of the night, I’ll say, “Oh, that’s a good idea,” and I’ll go back to sleep. I’ll never write it down.” If it’s a good enough idea, it’ll survive to the next day. Writers who hear that, they think I’m insane.
But the way I approach Batman is usually you start … Batman’s rarely just one issue at a time, although sometimes it is that, so usually you’re thinking, “OK, this is a five- or six-issue story you’re telling,” which—comics are funny in this way—should back up because there’s a macro level of them. What you’re writing is an 80, you’re contributing to an 80-year story, right?
Brogan: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
King: You’re trying to push it back. So on one level there’s an 80-year story going on. On another level there’s your story, there’s how long you’re going to be on it, and you want that to sort of be a complete arc, so you’re contributing to that. Then you go in closer and then within those arcs there’s smaller arcs. There’s sort of like small novels it might contain. If you think of the difference between Game of Thrones in a single book and then in that you’re writing issue by issue and that’s just chapter by chapter. So you kind of pin down where you sort of are within that macro context.
So we start with, I think, “OK, I have however long I’m going to be on Batman. I want to be on Batman for 100 issues, what transition do I want Bruce Wayne to make? ’Cause, you know, all stories are just stories of a character changing, basically. Where do I want him to be at the end? Where is he at the beginning? Where is he at the middle?”
Brogan: You talk about thinking about how the character’s gonna change. But you also talk about the 80-year history. This is a character who does change all the time, but for whom change is always going to involve this sort of regression back to a mean or something like that. Umberto Eco wrote this famous essay about Superman, who’s similarly kind of complex and overdetermined history, called “The Myth of Superman,” where he says that Superman’s story is, and this isn’t quite true anymore, but operate in oneiric climate, sort of dream space, where what comes before one set of stories and what comes after are there, but kind of hazy in the context of any given story. Do you feel like you can really contribute to this character who has such a dense history? That you can actually, actually change things about him or about the way we see him?
King: Absolutely not. No. I think that the best lesson to learn in comics, and probably any serialized medium, is that the next guy who’s going to erase everything you did and start over, and don’t be sad about it. That was an old lesson from my CIA days. You’d plan an operation and eventually you’d have to leave the operation and you just have to say good-bye, you know?
King: The person who followed it up would not be … would not handle the situation the same way you would handle it. And to be frustrated about that is to sort of yell at the wind. No one cares.
Brogan: It’s kind of terrifying that the same lessons apply to the CIA operations and comics, I confess.
King: But that’s kind of the magic of it. The way is not to be frustrated but to embrace it. “Batman is waiting for Godot” story. It’s a story about nothing happening while preparing for something to happen. And that’s what makes it deep because, I mean, I said that before where all stories are about change and we’re all trying to rewrite them, the odyssey of someone going on a journey and sort of learning something about themselves. But that’s not what real life is like, I don’t think. Real life is much weirder than that. Like you think you change and then you revert, then you go back and then you come back and … Those kind of stories, the stories you see in movies all the time where someone is this way in the first act and is this way in the second act and this way in the third act and they’ve changed, that’s not anything like reality. And in comics, as stupid as it is and kid-like as it is, that’s actually more true to reality in terms of … that life is a series of adventures and you don’t always learn anything from them and that you revert back to yourself at some point. And so that metaphor, I sort of embraced that.
Brogan: Let’s talk about, maybe we can get specific and talk about a specific example of change that you’re bringing or appear to be bringing to the character and his world. Just that in Issue 24 of your run on Batman, so a year into your time writing it, I think, Batman proposes to Catwoman.
Brogan: How does … that’s not just an emotional change, it’s also … a pretty emotionally raw issue. Bruce Wayne talking about failing to be happy about his fear. But then there’s also this big character moment that we get at the end that potentially affects all kinds of things throughout the DC Comics universe—a nerd thing, which is that “DC Comics” is DC Comics comics, Detective Comics comics.
King: It is Detective Comics comics.
Brogan: Because it’s named for the book in which Batman first appeared, actually, the detective comics in the ’30s. But in any case, when you set out to tell a story like that one, one where Batman is going to propose in the splash page at the end of this issue to this other character, how does that come about? Not just like how does the idea come about, but also do you have to get approval to do something like that?
King: Yes. You have to get a lot of approvals to do something like that. And it goes beyond … Batman’s a character, again, who doesn’t live just in the comic books, he lives in the movies, he lives in the TV shows.
Brogan: Literal billion-dollar property.
King: Yeah, he’s a billion-dollar property. He’s the face of a corporation. He’s the face of Warner Brothers, basically. So yes, I have to get approvals from my bosses who have to get approvals from their bosses who have to get approvals from who knows whose bosses. Probably goes back to the CIA guys.
But, yes, so when you propose something like a proposal, it’s kind of a big deal. But you can tell them, like, if I do this right, here’s the implications and here’s … As a writer you’re always like, “No, here’s why it matters. Here’s why it does this.” But of course, you have to put on your other hat and be like, “Here’s why we can sell a bunch of stuff and you can make a bunch of money.” ’Cause I work in commercial fiction and I’m proud of that, like the point is to sell comics. And also to distract people from their lives. The point is not always to say the deepest thing or the most artistic thing.
So I could be like, “This is a moment we’re building to and it’ll work organically and also this is going to get a lot of attention and it’s going to move the book forward.” Because if it is just the same story over and over again, people get bored.
Writing anything it’s just like jazz. If you know jazz, there’s the standard that Berlin wrote, whatever, 70 years ago and then what you do is you take that standard, you play it once, and then you come off it. You come off it and that makes you uncomfortable ’cause you’re kind of like, “Aw, I miss my standard, that’s great, this is beautiful,” and then you come back to the standard, like, “Ah, I feel at peace again.” And then you come away from it, and you’re like, “Ah,” and that’s how you build tension and create a release. And that’s what fiction is basically. It’s the building of tension, and the frustration of building tension, the high you get from the release the dose or of dopamine that you get from that.
So it’s like, OK, here’s the moment where I can build some tension, I can get away from sort of our base level.
Brogan: That proposal actually still has not been resolved, I think, at least in the comics that have come out.
King: No, I live in a “to be continued” medium. So, yeah, at the end of 24 he gets down and says, well, he doesn’t say “Will you,” he says, “Marry me.” It was a big decision on what he was going to say. And Catwoman doesn’t respond. And then we don’t resolve it for … eight more issues.
Brogan: Right. Because for the next eight issues you’re flashing back to this story from his past that you had referred to in earlier issues. So there’s, you have to get all these approvals to tell a big story like that one, to have a big moment like that, but that issue is also surprisingly meditative and raw, as I think I said earlier. It’s also relatively short on action, I mean, this is … I don’t think anyone gets punched out in that issue. A lot of it is just a conversation between Batman and this character that you created, I think, Gotham Girl, about whether or not she’s going to try to become a superhero and what path she’ll take as she goes down that road. And then there are these scenes of Batman and Catwoman gallivanting across the rooftops and jumping off of buildings and things like this. Do you also have to get approval to tell a quieter story? A quieter issue like that one. Is there any expectation that Joker’s going to get punched out in every issue?
King: I used to. I’m in a better position now. Once you sort of prove yourself and show you can do quiet stuff and show you know how to get away from the quiet and do the punching again, now they trust me a little bit more. But, yeah, it was actually problematic when I first proposed the issue ’cause I was working with an artist, David Finch, and later we brought in an artist called, Clay Mann to help, and David Finch is a big—he’s a big punch artist. Like he’s famous for big punch books. And I was very hesitant, and I’d written a draft of this script, which had sort of a lot of punching in it and sort of all the deep dialect went over the punching, and my editor was like, “I don’t know, you know. It seems like this could just be the two of them talking.” And I was like, “Well, David’s going to kill me. He’s going to reach out of the phone and strangle me ’cause he doesn’t want to draw two people just looking at each other.”
I work with an artist named Tom Fowler, he’s sort of the first artist I ever worked with, and he was very stringent, a great guy, and taught me. But he had a coffee break rule. He’s like, “If two characters are talking for more than two panels, one of them has to get up to get coffee. You can’t just do talking, talking, talking. A character is action, you have to get these people moving.” And we had just come off this arc where, basically it was a punching arc, it was of basically Batman punching Bane for five issues. And so my editor was like, “He’s been punching for five issues, he can take one issue off, he’ll be all right.” And so I said, “OK,” and then I wrote the issue with no punching. It was more powerful that way, I think. I think it was good. It was sort of how Batman transitions from this quiet moment where he’s talking to someone who’s trying to be a superhero and teaching them what it means to be a superhero, into to him trying to find happiness through his proposal.
Brogan: Yeah. So, I’m getting the sense, and we haven’t really talked much about the collaborative process of comics, the way that you … or of superhero comics, at least, with the ways that you’re interacting with a lot of different creative people in order to bring a single issue together. Get to that in a minute, I hope, but before we do, curious about like, the time that you actually spend writing the script. You said that you wrote your novel between 12 and 3 in the morning, which is terrifying to me. And I’m glad that you’re healthy and alive now.
King: My kids would nap, so I just did a nap when the kids napped. So you try to get the sleep back.
Brogan: Oh, was it 12 and 3 in the afternoon?
King: No, it was 12 and 3 at night, but then when the kids napped during the day you try to—
Brogan: You get in a few moments there.
King: Add up the sleep.
Brogan: And deny yourself the sleep, apparently. But are you still writing between 12 and 3 in the morning?
Brogan: Is that an entrenched habit now?
King: No, thank goodness, no.
Brogan: What is your day like? What’s it like when—do you sit down in the morning to write? Do you have a schedule?
King: Ish. I mean I have three kids and a working wife, so I have a schedule, but it never works. My line I use is it takes me five days to write: it takes me three days to write a script but it takes me five days to find three days. And I take care of … so I have a little one who’s 3, and I have two older that are 7 and 8—boy, girl, boy—and I take care of the little one until the nanny gets there around 11. So I have him for like an hour or two in the morning, which is like the best time. If you see me feel sentimental about losing it, he’s going off to preschool, and it’s killing me. We’ve sort of had these two hours in the morning every morning. And then I go up to work. And then of course there’s emails, and there’s this, and there’s Twitter, and being a creator in the modern age means you’re constantly getting feedback 24/7, and do you react to that, do you not, it’s a whole thing.
Brogan: We actually first interacted on Twitter.
King: That’s right.
Brogan: Talking about how good Vision was, I think.
King: That’s right. And so, you get distracted by that stuff. My basic process is on a first day I try to write five pages. I think when you’re writing you have to be forgiving of your own self.
Brogan: When you say pages, write five pages, you mean script out five pages of the comic itself?
King: Yeah. Script out five pages. So what happens, my deadlines are always Friday, so I start Monday and Friday. Sort of like a normal workweek.
Brogan: Is this, do you have a home office that you’re working at?
King: Yeah, I have a home office. It looks very nerdy. Looks out at … I work on Capitol Hill in D.C., I have my old dog, Roxy, on the floor yelling at me to take her out all day long. On the computer I use Word, which is a program I’ve used since I was in high school … So what I do is basically over the weekend, the weekend before, I’ll know what issue I have to write next, whether it’s a Batman or I’m working on Mr. Miracle now. And over the weekend while I’m driving or taking care of the kids or doing something, I’m daydreaming. I’m thinking of what this issue could be. And I’m basically looking for a way to organize it. Like in Batman 24 I feel like that specific issue I organized it by there’s essentially two scenes that happen simultaneously. There’s one scene where he’s talking to the Gotham, this girl who’s about to be a superhero, and there’s one scene that happens in the future where he’s with Catwoman, and they’re sort of having, just having fun going through the city.
And so once I get sort of an organizing principle and I can sort of see it, and hopefully I’m there by Monday, if I’m not then I spend Monday looking for that principle, then I write the first five pages on the first day, the first five script pages. That can be really easy to me. Some script pages are hard to write, some are easy. Sometimes you can just write like, “Double-page splash.” What that means is it’s two pages put together, one big picture on it.
For people who don’t know how comic books work—and who knows how comic books work? People who work in comics don’t know how comics work, it’s not like screenwriting where there’s a set sort of here’s how to write a screenplay and anyone who gets a screenplay will know if you know the rules or not. They’re like, “Oh, you’re a professional or you’re not.” You can tell instantly by the screenplay. Or a novel, which I have written where it’s just like everyone knows what a novel looks like. A script is basically a letter you’re writing to your artist. And it’s like, “This is a comic book I want you to draw.” And it’s a long letter and it has to go through an editor, so he has to understand it, too. So, that can be anything, like there’s a thing famously called the “Marvel Method” that Stan Lee used to use with Jack Kirby where he would, like, not even write a letter, he would just call Jack on the phone and be like, “Jack, I want something with a big God-like character and he’s taking over the world.” And that’s how Kirby draws Galactus and Silver Surfer.
Brogan: And then Lee would just go on sometimes and write the actual dialogue in, depending on what Kirby had created.
King: It seems so bizarre, but this is actually how 30 percent of comics get written, especially back in the day, is that just some random plot stuff like that. Or the plot could be thicker where it’s just like two pages of here’s what happens in the issue. And then an artist will draw it without any words on the page. So it makes no sense. It makes only sense to the artist. And then he’ll turn in the pictures and then the writer will write words on them.
Brogan: It’s like Mad Libs or something.
King: It’s like Mad Libs. And if writers and artists are talking, the artist can be like, “This is what I intended to do here.” But if they’re not, like back in the day Stan Lee and Steve Ditko didn’t talk to each other when they were doing Spider-Man, so Stan Lee would get these things and he’d have no idea what they meant. He would literally just have to guess what Steve meant. There might be some notes in the margins.
Brogan: But that’s not how you work.
King: That’s not how I work. I work for something called a false script, which is where I, like each panel, basically every page has a certain number of panels on it, I decide how may panels. And I do panel one, a small description, and then what the person says. Panel two, a small description, and then what the person says. But, again, it’s tailored to the artist. If I know what artist I’m writing, I know, OK, this person needs this much guidance, this person needs this much guidance. I did something, I did a project called Omega Man, which was with an artist that sort of never worked—he was an Indonesian artist—he’d never worked in comics before. And I didn’t know his strengths. To this day I’ve never talked to him because he worked through an agent. So I would do the layouts for him, I would be like, “OK, you’re writing this in this panel, this in this panel, and this is exactly how the page is laid out.” And so that’s as strict as you can get. But if you do that to an experienced artist, they’ll punch you in the face. They’ll be like, “I know how to do my damn job,” basically.
So you say, “OK, you lay out the page how you want, you decide which panels go where, which go where, and I’ll just say what goes in each panel. You decide which one’s big, which one’s small.”
Brogan: So you’re not necessarily dictating the exact detail of a page layout. Like if the panels are going to fan out in some way or something like this on the finished page, you’re not calling for that sort of design details?
King: You can. I mean, everything in comics is, it depends. Again, it’s a letter to your artist. If you trust your artist, if you’re like … I work with a guy named Mikel on Batman and I write comics up and down, which means when I think of comics I think of them as you read from top to bottom, and he thinks of comics as left to write, which is sort of like he thinks of comics as a horizontal medium and I think of it as a vertical medium, if I got those right. But I trust him, so I’ll just like, I’ll do two different pages and he’ll merge the pages, and I know he’s going to do it, and I’ll just say, “Mikel do your thing.” It’ll be like that kind of thing where I won’t tell him, “OK, do this fancy, do this,” I’ll just be like, Mikel do something design-y,” or something as simple as that.
Brogan: But that comes with having a relationship.
King: That comes with having a relationship.
Brogan: And presumably knowing their work. Do you study an artist’s work before you start to work with them if it’s a new person?
King: Oh, absolutely, yeah. And the key is, you want an artist to be excited about what they’re drawing. That’s the key to everything in success in comics. You want an artist to be as engaged with the work as you are. So, for example, I worked with an artist named Fabok on Batman for a little while and we had some pages to do, and it was kind of, just empty. It was again just a page that needed just good visuals but I didn’t really have a great idea for it. And I know Jay, he’s a Canadian, he’s a big hockey fan, I know probably he’s the first Canadian hockey fan. And so I had done research, and he had done, on his Facebook page, he had done up the hockey uniform for Gotham City, and I was like, “Oh, well let’s put those in a comic.” And so Jay got excited ’cause he got to put his Gotham uniforms and draw hockey for a little while.
So you use tricks like that and sort of see what your … That’s the best place to be as a writer, as a writer you want to be in a box. Put me in a box and let me solve a puzzle. Writing is just solving a puzzle on some level. So you say to your artist, “What do you want to draw? What don’t you want to draw?” One time I was working with an artist on Batman and they said they didn’t want to draw cityscapes or action. I was like, that’s the one time where I was like, “Oh, I don’t think this is going to work out between the two of us,” ’cause I think Batman is pretty much all cityscapes and action. That’s basically every issue.
Brogan: Yeah. When you’re grappling with this huge history of Batman, is there like a mythologist or, to use another term, a continuity person, who you have to consult with to make sure that things line up, that you’re not contradicting some important story that came before or something like this? Or do you just have to like wing it and hope that someone will catch it if you get something wrong?
King: It’s an odd combination. It’s funny you ask me that because I used to be that person when I was an intern at Marvel when I was 20 years old. I was the continuity person. Read all the comics and said, “Oh, this doesn’t match with that.” Like I had to have some deep nerd to do that.
But the way it works now … I actually, there’s a podcast called Gotham by Geeks. And it’s like Chris Campbell and Darrell Taylor, one of my two best friends, and they’re supernerds and they’ve read every single Batman comic. And so I literally will go on messenger with them and I’ll be like, “Here’s an idea I have. Has this been done before?” And they’ll be like, “Well, in Batman 141,” it contradicts something. So I use outside sources so when I’ve turned in my script I’ve sort of already gone through people who I think are probably better than the guys who are internal in DC have.
Then DC will have to coordinate it because, of course, Batman is one comic book but there’s also Batman … he exists in multiple teams, right? Like there’s a Batman in the Justice League comic book, and there’s a Batman in the Detective Comics comic book, and there’s a Batman in the Birds of Prey. So all those people are technically the same Batman because when you’re writing a comic book what you’re doing is you’re just creating a window into a world, right? And they have to make sure all the windows are looking into the same world. So then that has to be coordinated with the editorial staff.
Brogan: Related question, what happens, how involved are you when there’s like a crossover between books or something like this? Do other writers consult with you if they’re bringing Batman into their book? Or do they just get to do Batman their way?
King: I sort of have a philosophy that I don’t ever want to ever get in another writer’s way. So if anyone says to me, “Tom, can I do this with Batman?” I almost, I think I always say yes and let the editor sort it out. I was like, I’ll worry about the Batman in my books, you worry about the Batman in your books. And then the editors will have the conniptions. “No, that doesn’t add up, that doesn’t add this.” Let the editors do it. Writers have enough problems without me sort of editing them.
Brogan: You also, though, occasionally have to deal with kind of company-wide crossovers where you have to fit your story into this larger story that’s being told about Watchmen or something like this being introduced into the DC Universe. Is that … do you feel like you have to cede control in those moments? Is that frustrating when you’re writing those kind of issues?
King: No. The way comics work to the audience is, the way they seem real—and this seems so weird to say this, and I don’t know if people understand this, but maybe you’ll understand this from watching the movies—is they seem real because a comic book like Batman will have an impact on another comic book five years from now or another comic book a month from now. Like there are consequences to the actions. So that when I say Batman gets … Catwoman proposes to Batman, Batman has this emotional moment, that might have an impact beyond my book. So then it has to sort of be one story, and that’s something we call continuity.
We have this now in the movies, but it would be sort of weird if Tony Stark was played by a different actor in the Spider-Man movie than he is in the Iron Man movie. Now everyone sees how weird that is, but growing up that’s what all of you were making fun of us for being nerds about, “Oh, this doesn’t add up.”
Brogan: I’ve never used that voice to describe anyone.
King: I use it all the time. But to me, that’s a joy. That’s part of that makes the comic books have high stakes, that’s why people read it. If you’re writing, you want people to care about your characters and think they’re as real as you can make them. You don’t want to be writing … you don’t want them to perceive your book as fan fiction, as something that you’re just doing to entertain yourself. You’re doing something to entertain an audience, to connect with them. Although fan fiction now has gotten so evolved now it does that too.
So the continuity is the thing that sort of separates you from playing by yourself to you playing with … to being meaningful. So that when someone dies it means something. It would be stupid if in one Game of Thrones episode Jon Snow died and then the next one some different writer wrote it and Jon Snow was awake again. You’d be like, “I’m never watching Game of Thrones again. It’s useless to me.” It would be no stakes in the show. Death would be meaningless.
Brogan: Although death is often meaningless in comics, in some cases.
King: Yes, that’s true. So you have to find something … so the tough part is finding something that’s more meaningful in death, so that’s what Batman is. We’re finding love. That’s like the one thing that might do it.
Brogan: I like that. Do you ever provide visual references for people? You say that there are short descriptions, but if you have something really clearly in mind that you want to see on the page, how do you convey that to the artist?
King: Oh, absolutely, all the time where I’ll do … If you look in Batman 24 that we’re talking about, the first or the second page is a big splash page where it’s like a vertical shot of Batman sitting on top of a big building looking down. I knew I was writing these boring talking pages where it would just be Batman and this girl talking for a long time, so I was like I have to at least set it some place interesting so there’s something visual to look at. So when I think interesting, I think way high up, so I was, like, I want this—’Cause Batman’s not afraid of heights like most people—so I was like, if he’s just going to have a conversation, I’ll have it on the top of a needle of a building. So I went and looked at all those—you know you watch those videos on Facebook where people are walking on top of these buildings and it just makes your stomach fall out basically. I was like, what if we did that? What if Batman was just wandering around the top of one of those buildings in a way? Because at least it’ll be visually interesting, then at least you’re staring at it and you’re stomach’s falling out.
So I took some of those. I went on the internets, if you’ve heard of those, and I got some pictures.
Brogan: I have.
King: And I said to my artist, “I want to do it sort of this style where you sort of get this vertigo.” So if you see in that first shot it’s right from a shot I took off the internet.
Brogan: Do you draw yourself? Are you a visually minded person in that way?
King: No. I’m one of the few comic writers who don’t draw, which is disappointing to me. Even the classic writers, like Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, those guys have some skills and sort of started as artists. I have none. I can’t draw anything. I can’t draw a bat. I practice and practice just so I could draw a bat signal, ’cause people come up to you at Cons, like, “Can you do me a sketch?” And I was like, “Yeah.” So you want to draw something, so I drew a bat signal, which is just like five lines, and I couldn’t do it. It just looks … yeah, no, I can’t do a single … Having an arp to me it’s just like having a superpower. I don’t understand how they do it. I feel bad that I … it’s a lot harder to be an artist than a writer. I’ll say something in a script like … for issue five of Batman, this superhero Gotham Girl, and she’s hovering over, and I was like, “Gotham Girl hovering over the entire landscape of Gotham City,” knowing he’d have to draw 50 buildings. And it takes me 30 seconds to write that. It takes an artist a week to draw it.
Brogan: Yeah. Some of the notes in your scripts, your descriptions are, you said, short. That’s like a sentence normally, right?
King: Yeah. Just like a sentence, terse. Yeah.
Brogan: Having looked at one of your scripts, having looked at the script for Issue 24, I was struck by these kind of occasional references in your notes to the artists about kind of what we might consider kind of intangible details. You write at one point of Batman, “He’s trying to be brave.” When you write something like that, do you have in your head a sense of what that’s going to look like when they bring it into the world? Or are you just making a leap of faith?
King: No. My … it’s arrogant to say, but my gift, or what I do well is, I’ve read so many stupid comic books and I love the medium so much and I’ve dedicated my life to it at this point, when I’m writing I can see the comic in my head. And I can see, usually, I can see well what artist I’m writing it for and I can see pretty much how they draw it. And I’m usually right when it comes down to it. Sometimes the great artists will surprise me and sort of exceed my expectations. And that’s just practice.
What I do, when I think of a script, is I close my eyes and I think of the best comic I can be to get this idea across and then I sort of describe what I see in my head. So when I say something like, “Batman trying to be brave,” I’m just trying to … I see his expression in my head. And I was like, “How do I describe that expression?” You know, I can’t say, “Oh, half his lip is moved a little bit at a 45-degree angle this way.” Like that doesn’t make sense to me to say something like that. So I just sort of describe the emotion and hope the artist can nail it.
Brogan: There are comic writers throughout the history of superhero comics that did take that much more aggressive elaborate approach. Alan Moore, who we’ve mentioned a few times, is famous for having the first panel of “Killing Joke,” his big famous Batman story, is supposedly like a page and a half long. But you’re not that kind of guy. You’re …
King: No, and I feel bad about it. I feel like I should be as obsessed with those kind of details, but … even doing terse descriptions, I feel like I’m on the more strict, right? A lot of comic book writers will say things like, “The next two pages there’s gonna be a fight scene, do what you want. I’ll add dialogue later.” That’s probably the standard way to do a fight scene is just sort of to do something like that and then you skip ahead. I never do that, I’m always like, “Panel one, the punch goes this way. Panel two, the kick goes that way.” So I feel myself that I’m too strict. But I don’t know … When I did my prose I wrote in a sort of terse style just trying to copy Hemingway like everyone does. So I think I write in terse style when I do panels.
Brogan: That makes sense. So you live here in Washington, D.C. Most of your collaborators do not.
King: None of them do. Washington is a terrible town.
Brogan: Why would you live here? Why would I live here?
King: Why would anyone live here?
Brogan: Why do we live here?
King: It’s twice as expensive as everywhere else. And twice the taxes.
Brogan: And there are half the number of comic book artists.
King: And you’re surrounded by crazy political people.
Brogan: That’s true. Given that your collaborators are elsewhere, for the most part, how do you communicate with them? Is it over email? Are you getting on the phone?
King: It’s both. I mean, it depends on … I work with, as I’ve said I work with writers who don’t speak a lick of English, or artists who don’t speak a lick of English, then it’s a whole different story. So I work at Batman with a guy named David Finch, he’s a Canadian, so I’ll call him on the phone and we’ll sort of talk of what you want to draw. I work with another artist named Mikel Janin, he’s in Spain, and we’ve been working together for three years, he was on Grayson with me, I don’t have to call him. I kind of know what he likes and what he doesn’t like. I’ve met him in person once even though we’ve been working together for three years. And then I worked with an artist called Mitch Gerads, who we did Sheriff with, and we did … we’re doing Mr. Miracle with, which is this ambitious book I’m doing now, and we talk to each other every day through direct messages on Twitter. And so it goes the entire gambit of where I won’t talk to an artist directly for a year to where I’ll talk to an artist every day. I’m kind of scared of talking to artists, I have an honest fear of it.
Brogan: Because you don’t want to interfere in their process?
King: Yeah. I kind of don’t want to … it’s kind of that feeling like you don’t want your kids to know that Santa Claus isn’t real. It’s like you don’t want artists to see [inaudible].
Brogan: Santa on this—
King: Oh, you’ve had Santa?
Brogan: A Santa.
King: So then you know, you’re in the know. OK, good. It’s the feeling of like, if they’re reading your scripts and they’re like, “Wow, this is really good,” which hopefully they’re doing, you don’t want them to sort of see what a jerk you are or what a … I’m controlling all my swearwords, but you know, I’m kind of afraid they’re going to meet me and be like, “Oh, man, that guy is not what I thought he was. He doesn’t,” ’cause when you’re an author you kind of want people to think that you know some sort of deep secret and you’re expressing it through stories. You don’t want people to think of you as an individual on some level.
Brogan: They’re going to listen to this probably.
King: Oh no, oh no.
Brogan: They’re gonna know.
King: They’ll know, they’ll know what a crazy person I am. And they all draw beautifully every single page, each line is perfect.
Brogan: Do you get to see the pages that they’re producing as … they produce them?
King: Yes. They come in as … I mean, it varies from artist to artist, but the average would be like they send in once a week, two to three pages. And that’s just a process of getting paid. I get paid for a full script, they get paid by the pages they turn in.
Brogan: Mm-hmm (affirmative). And part of that—and there’s another process that we’ll be exploring over the next few episodes there—which is that on the books you write there’s often one person who’s doing the pencils, one person who’s doing the inks, someone else puts the book in color, someone else letters the pages.
King: That’s right.
Brogan: Do you see each step along the way as it passes through the production pipeline?
King: Yeah, I do. I mean, basically all comics have this five-step process, for people who don’t know. So you write it, an editor and a writer decide what the ideas are going to be, and then the writer writes the script. And then an artist pencils it. I mean, it’s changed a little bit with computers; computers have changed everything. This is traditional … draws the lines in pencil, and then an inker, it could be the same person ’cause some people like to ink themselves, inks over the lines with black ink and that adds, even I have trouble as a nonartist describing it, but it adds like a verve and strength to the art and a depth to it. And a bad inker can ruin pencils.
Brogan: And two different inkers can take the same pencils and turn them into two very different things.
King: Yeah, absolutely. And inkers … the ink is what gets printed off of. So if a penciler puts a line down and an inker doesn’t put that line in, that line never got drawn.
Brogan: ’Cause it just won’t be seen.
King: ’Cause it just won’t be seen. Or if the inker draws lines that aren’t there, those are the lines that get in. So pencilers are always obviously very particular about what inker is used. And most pencilers prefer to ink themselves, which is what I have on most of my books. So that’s the traditional way when people were drawing on big 11 x 17 pieces of paper. Now, in the modern age, the last 10 years this technology, it’s usually called a Cintiq, but there’s sort of different, you can do it on an iPad Pro or something … and so a lot of—
Brogan: A tablet.
King: A tablet of some sort, a big tablet. And a lot of people, like I work with Mitch Gareds and Jay Fabok, who I was talking about earlier, they do their art directly on a Cintiq, and then the process is completely different for them, ’cause they have an undo button, they can … it’s not just Wite-Out. And they can also ink themselves quicker that way. So a lot of people who do it digitally, they call that, they draw digitally on a thing and they turn it in that way, it’s a whole different process. And it’s sad for us nerds because there’s no actual physical copy of the art, ’cause if you were a big comic book fan, you want to buy the original art, but it doesn’t exist ’cause it’s all done digitally now.
Brogan: Yeah. It may be sad for the artist, as well, ’cause they can’t sell those pages.
King: Right. But Batman 24, in particular, was all … it’s really weird, it’s all done on paper. There’s two artists who worked on that book drawing the two halves of it, Clay Mann and David Finch, and both of them work traditionally in big piece of paper and both of them work with inkers, and Clay works with his brother Seth and David works with Danny Miki, who’s the best inker in comics. It helps when you’re doing the best-selling comic ’cause you get the best artists.
So that’s the ink process, and then what happens is it’s sent to the colorist, which is actually a dual process. They send it to a flatter, what they call a “flatter,” and what that person does is they basically color the comic in like the simplest, easiest way possible. And then they send that comic, and it’s like factory-style, these flatters out there, and they send the comic back to the colorist, who’s a professional, and is sort of like the Photoshop genius of the comic who does all the Photoshop, does all the special effects, and makes the figures look brilliant and interesting. In our comic, it’s Jordie Bellaire, who’s probably the best colorist in comics, she’s won two to three Eisner’s.
Brogan: I think we’re going to talk to her in a later episode.
King: Yeah, she’s brilliant. I work with her as much as I possibly can. And she, her style, and she’ll tell you better than I am, but she’s into storytelling. A lot of colorists are sort of into renders and making things sort of as molded as possible, but she’s into storytelling and sort of dulling them. I love what she does. So then she turns it in. And then once that’s done, simultaneously there’s a process called “the letters” and that’s a letterer will, our letterer on this is Clayton Cowles, who’s one of the best letterers in comics. And he takes your words, takes your scripts, takes the inked pages, and matches them up. So he puts the word balloons in that everyone famously put in the comics.
Brogan: Right. And I think this is something that a lot of people may not realize about the way that a lot of superhero comics are made, a lot of mainstream comics are made, is that those balloons come in last.
King: Yeah, they do. They come in last. And then once all that’s done, they send you, the writer, and it’s usually in black-and-white because the colors usually come in last, they send you a black-and-white copy of, OK, you had your script, that was your attempt to describe a comic book, and somebody drew what they thought you were thinking, and now they’ve matched that up together and you have to decide if they hit it or not.
Brogan: And do they ever miss?
King: Yeah. Often. So then you have about, you have like … it’s, everyone’s on deadlines, right? That’s how the world works. So you have between 4 hours to 24 hours to sort of fix everything. Honestly, in most of my comics it’s usually very smooth, it’s usually just me, I’m the one missing where I’m like, “Oh.” ’ Cause comics are all about controlling time, you know? It’s about when you’re doing panel one, panel two, how much time does the reader spend on one to spend on the other to get the right beats. Do you need a blank panel here to make a joke work? It’s like if you think of telling a stupid joke. Like “How did the chicken cross …” Think of one guy talking to another guy, who’s like, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” “To get to the other side.” Would you do that in one panel with two people talking to each other? Or would you do, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” And then little blanks, there’s a little like the guy’s thinking about it, and then another panel. How do you just control the beats of that to make it as funny as possible? So that’s what you’re looking for. Do the beats work? Does your eye, does it flow? And also, you’re seeing which words are sticking out, which ones are repetitive, what you wrote that sounded stupid but now it sounds good.
Brogan: If it isn’t working, do you talk to the artist directly? Do you go to your editor? I mean, I imagine that that, in some cases, could be a pretty big deal, especially if the art has made it this far along in the production process by the time you’re looking at it.
King: It’s rare that I get something where I’m like, “Wow, this doesn’t work.” Sometimes there’s just a storytelling thing, like, “Oh, man, we forgot to put the gun in the first act. It needs to off by the third act. We’ve violated the rule.”
Brogan: The mirror universe check.
King: So you go back and Photoshop in the guns, when it goes off in the third act. That happens where just little storytelling beats that have to be in there. But typically you don’t want to insult—you have to trust your artist and be like, “OK, what were they doing? What did they see in your script that you didn’t see? And how did they bring it out? And how can you complement them?” Rather than be like, “You need to redraw that like I said it.” You’re like, “OK, why did you draw it this way? How can I make that better into match with my vision?”
Brogan: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Is there ever a time when you’re like, “Holy shit, I wrote that?” Like, “I helped bring this into the world?”
King: There’s always a time when I’m saying “Holy shit.” I don’t think there’s a time where I said, “Oh, man, I wrote that.” I mean, there are issues you get because then you eventually, a week before it comes out, they send you it in the mail and it’s the scariest moment of your life ’cause you’re like, “Oh my God, what if there’s a typo? What if I did something stupid? What if I …?” And you kind of don’t want to read it and you do want to read it. And sometimes you read it and you’re like, “Oh.” Like I just got Mr. Miracle number one and I was like, “Oh man, I’m so proud. Everything is perfect.” And I can’t read … I read over and over and over again. But then I’ll get an issue, I did this Elmer Fudd issue, which was great, it went over big, but I couldn’t—
Brogan: It’s also a truly insane idea. When you say, “Elmer Fudd issue,” just so the listener is clear, you mean Elmer Fudd fights Batman.
King: Yeah. I did an Elmer Fudd fights Batman issue of a comic book, which sold out. People loved it. It went big. But I got it and there was a typo on one page and I literally ripped it in half and threw it in the trashcan. Which was sad because then they sold out and the copies were selling for $50 a pop. My wife’s like, “You threw those out?” I was like, “Well, there was a typo.” Nobody noticed. So sometimes I’m proud of my writing and sometimes not.
Brogan: Yeah. One thing we haven’t really talked about is your relationship with the editors that you work with, who presumably are looking at, approving, revising, the script. What are those interactions like?
King: Well, it’s so funny about 24, because that was a big editor fight, with 24, there are two editors listed for that book because we switched editors halfway through.
Brogan: Oh, wow. Is that normal?
King: No, it’s not normal. It was very weird. I got in a big fight with my editor about it, an editor I love, Mark Doyle. He wanted to bring in an artist on it who had not worked on the book before. I knew it was this big moment and I knew it was Batman proposing to Catwoman and I sort of knew it was one of those things that you’re going to turn on Twitter and there it’s going to be, the stupid image, and I was like, “I want this to be an image of David,” who had been writing on Batman, David Finch, forever. And I was like, “I want him to draw this issue.” And they’re like, “No, no, no, David’s too busy. He’s going on vacation.” I was like, “Just call him.” And we got in a big fight over it and in the end we switched editors then and got David. And that’s how we brought in Jamie Rich on the book.
And I don’t know who was right, who was wrong. I mean, I think David was right to draw the issue, but that’s something I could not do earlier in my career. Where you could say, like, “I’m putting my book down.” That’s something you can only say when you’ve had a lot of success.
Brogan: Do you have much say in other contexts about which artists you’re going to work with on a given book?
King: Yes. I do now. This is how comics work. When you first come in, you have no power at all. You’re at the whim of your editor because your editor controls whether you eat that day. And you have to try to fight as hard as you can for the creative decisions because you’re in this box. And a lot of people find themselves in this box where you’re like, “If I write this bad thing that I’ve been told to write, my career won’t go forward. But if I argue, then the editor will hate me and my career won’t go forward.” So you’re constantly dealing with that pressure. And I’ve been lucky in my career to have worked with editors like Mark Doyle and like Jamie Rich who are willing to take feedback, but there are editors who won’t take feedback or editors who have bad opinions on things. And then you get to a sort of even ground where the two of you can have a conversation. Where you can be like, “OK, I don’t like this. I don’t like that.” But eventually … and then you get to where they trust you, where there’s actual trust in you because you’ve had some successes. And I’m fortunate enough, Lord knows a year from now I’ll fall off and won’t be in that position, but right now at least I’m fortunately at the point where the editors do trust me enough to be like, “OK, Tom’s opinion.” But once you have that trust, it’s frickin’ sacred. Like you can’t violate it. It’s almost bigger pressure. You don’t want to … then the pressure has to be on you to make it as good as possible because now the comic book relies on what you can do.
Brogan: When you get notes from an editor, what shape does that take? Are they sending you a page of comments or are they just marking things up in track changes in Word?
King: I hate track changes, it’s awful. I hate seeing that big red line. I have a great relationship with my editors, so basically, I like my notes over phone, that’s how I like my notes. Where they call me and they say, “OK, let’s go through this and do this.” Basically, if I turn in a script and it’s terrible, that’s what I want the editors to be like. ’Cause it happens to me. It happened to me with Batman 29, which is about to come out. I turned in a script and I was like, “It’s pretty good, it’s not my best, but it’s good.” And my editor contacted me and they’re like, “Here’s 30 notes.” And I was like, “Oh, this is just a terrible script.” And I threw it out and started over. So you have to have trust in your editors to be able to do that. But if you turn in a script and it’s good, then the editor will call you and be like, “OK, can you adjust this? Can you adjust that?” And it’s usually one or two drafts. I mean, I’ve been on things where it’s seven drafts and you’re just you both want to kill each other by the end where you just can’t get it right between the two of you. And then I think it’s almost like you’ve hired the wrong person for this job, clearly we’re not seeing eye to eye on this if it’s going to draft seven.
Brogan: I imagine that must be scary, though. Maybe not at this point in your career.
King: It’s utterly frightening. If I get something back where there’s just like tons of notes, I’ll be like, “OK, I just need to start over.” If at this point in my career I’m writing something that’s just, that needs a bunch of notes, then the problem is me, and it’s better to start over. But there have been points in my career where it’s just like, “OK, here, let’s nitpick this and nitpick that and nitpick that.” And as a writer it drives you insane.
Brogan: One question I’m left with after all this is how you find balance. It takes you most of a working week to do a given script. You’re turning in two Batman scripts a month usually?
Brogan: Because there are going to be two issues a month. You also though write these other books. You’re writing Mr. Miracle now. Is Sheriff of Babylon ongoing at this point?
King: It is, but it’s on pause right now.
Brogan: OK. But you’ve got a lot going on. A lot of stuff that you’re juggling. How do you find balance between those different … professional activities that you’re engaged in?
King: It’s a script a week, basically. So I try in the four weeks in a month. And then there are weeks you’re going to end up missing. So I have about three scripts … I tend every week to get a script done and if I miss one then I sort of have, I was like, OK, I actually only have three scripts to do this week. So I always plan on writing one script per week. The tough thing is with a double-ship book, which is what they call Batman, where it comes out … books have always come out monthly, this is something new where it comes out biweekly. We’re trying to … TV comes out weekly, for binge-watching, God forbid.
With that I have to write for two artists at the same time. I’m writing two stories at the same time because the artists … it takes an artist a long time to draw a comic book. And it takes them more than a month if you think of the math. It takes them about six weeks to draw a comic book. So you have to write two arcs at the same. So that’s the tough part, sort of separating them in your head.
Brogan: So you’re actually working well in advance of the publication dates now? It’s not, it’s a deadline game, but maybe not like a … do or die, up-to-the-moment kind of thing.
King: Yeah. I mean, it can go both ways. Again, I started in novels where you write a novel and then it takes you six months to sell it and then the editor works with you for six months on it and then you have a six months with copy editors. So a novel takes two to three years basically to go through its process to come out to the public. Whereas a comic book is such an instant medium. It’s very improvisational where I write a comic book, it gets drawn, it takes about two months to draw, colors. The whole thing takes about three months but I’m involved in every aspect. Two weeks before it comes out we’re still like, “OK, should we move that bubble? Should we move that bubble?” Boom, it’s done. It goes out. It’s a much more instantaneous medium than publishing is. And I’m doing a little television work. Then television is where you’ve got 50 people involved in every single decision. This is just five people in a room getting it done. So to me it seems very instantaneous.
Brogan: Yeah. Do you find it difficult to switch tonally between the different books that you’re writing?
King: No. No, it’s a matter of imagination. You’re a different person. When people ask me that question like, “Do you have trouble?” It’s like, “Do you have trouble talking to your wife as opposed to your boss?” You’re switching who you are throughout the day. So I’m a different writer when I’m writing Mr. Miracle as I am writing Batman, but it’s the same as being a different person talking to someone else.
Brogan: Yeah. What about the money? If I can ask about that. Does writing comics pay well?
King: It’s not a medium that people get in to get rich. It’s a medium people get in to love. That said, when you write Batman, which is a very good-selling title, comics are nice and have royalty structures now.
Brogan: Historically, they didn’t.
King: Yeah, they didn’t historically. Yeah. And the great creators of these great works, like Superman had no money, and so Schuster was homeless at the end of his life, basically, and had to be sort of rescued by Warner Brothers and they put him on a salary of like $30,000 a year. And here they were releasing movies making billions of dollars.
But fortunately because of people like Neal Adams, who worked to get comic book royalties, if you’re writing a book like Batman, which sells very well (thank you Batman readers for that), or a book like Vision, which didn’t sell well in the comic book, like those little trade things, but once it hit the book market it sold very well, then the royalties kick in and you can make some decent money off of that.
Brogan: Yeah. Are you in a position to negotiate those royalties or is it kind of standard across the industry?
King: Everything’s negotiable. At the end of the day, it’s sort of a capitalist system, but I’m lucky enough I work for DC Comics, and the head of DC Comics is Dan DiDio, and he really actually cares deeply about creators and creator writes and making sure creators get their money and get paid. So I’m well taken care of and I appreciate that. It’s crazy. It’s crazy to make money off of comic books. It pays a lot better than novels, I’ll tell you that.
Brogan: I believe it.
King: And better than the CIA.
Brogan: Yeah. That’s news. You weren’t living the James Bond life?
King: No, no. Sadly. You’re a public employee. You’re a GS something or other.
Brogan: Last questions here, what happens after a book comes out? Do you have to spend much time doing promotion supporting it?
King: It depends on the issue. When it’s an issue like Batman getting engaged, yes. You do those, you do like—being a comic book writer or a comic book writer who’s on a big book like that, it’s like being like a nerd celebrity or like the D-minus celebrity. So you kind of do the same things you see real celebrities do, but on a weird, nerdier base. Like I’ll do that thing like you see those junket things where the actors get, NBC and CBS and all these people come, and they interview them for five minutes. I do that but with like comic book website A, comic book website B, comic book website C. So it’s kind of like the nerd version of celebrity. So you do that all the time and you just try not to sound like an ass.
Brogan: Are you happy?
King: In my life? Oh, God, no. I’m a writer. Who’s a happy writer? Is there one out there? Am I happy? Yes! Yes, I’m happy. But I’m not happy because of my comics, I’m happy because of my wife and my kids and my dog. That’s what makes me happy. The comics are nice, but that’s the core of the thing, right?
Brogan: Sounds like a good life. Well, thank you so much for being here with us today. This was such a delight.
King: I’m a super-Slate nerd, like I’ve been listening to your podcast for 10 years. I just got to meet David Plotz in the hallway and tried not to freak out. He elbow-bumped me. So this is an honor. And I appreciate everything you do and everything your site does. It means a lot to me.
Brogan: Thanks. Well, I’m a super-comics nerd and I appreciate everything that your books do. They mean a lot to me. I am, it’s true.
* * *
Brogan: In this Slate Plus segment we let a few Slate staffers come into the studio, or call in, and ask Tom King some of their most pressing questions about Batman.
Speaker 1: OK. So have you ever wanted to put Batman in a really ridiculous situation just for the bonus, or like, say you get him skateboarding out of an exploding helicopter in a tutu playing a saxophone?
King: Yes, there’s a famous meme of Batman riding a shark down. No. I’m not tempted. I feel like if you go that way—like the thing about Batman is what makes him great is that he’s camp by himself and if you try to make him camp then you’re just doing it silly. The difference here, here’s a classic example: There’re two villains that I work with. One’s called Kite Man. Kite Man was made in the ’60s. He’s a superhero and his power is kites. That’s utterly ridiculous. There’s another superhero called Condiment Man. His power is to fling mustard and ketchup at somebody. That was made to be funny. And so to me, it’s not as interesting. It’s not as funny because it doesn’t play with the seriousness that people take the medium. So you don’t lean into the camp, let the camp come out of itself.
Speaker 2: So I just have a few questions.
King: I can’t wait.
Speaker 2: OK. My first question is, did Jack Napier kill Thomas and Martha Wayne, or not? There’s been some contradiction so I just want an answer. Yeah, see.
King: Have you ever danced in the moonlight?
Speaker 2: No, I have not actually.
King: No. He did not. I’m definitive in saying that the Joker became, he became the Joker, did not kill Batman’s parents, because that’s too easy.
Speaker 2: Right, right.
King: Because that would make the Joker sort of this one to one metaphor of, oh, I mean, I love that movie and I think that’s a brilliant thing to simplify the character, but since we can work in a medium of a little more complications, the Joker should be sort of this chaotic form who doesn’t have an origins for the way he was presented in Dark Knight. So the Joker was not the person who killed Batman’s parents.
Speaker 2: OK. Well, then do you know who was? I need an answer.
King: There is an answer. There is a nerd answer. There’s sort of a traditional person who killed Batman’s parents and there’s lots of stories about him.
Speaker 2: OK.
King: But I don’t, to me, I think of Batman … His name is Joe Chill. He exists in current, like I could … in jail, like Batman could go visit him.
Speaker 2: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
King: But, to me, in Batman’s mind is the reality’s Batman’s mind, not what someone writes in comic books. In his mind it wasn’t that the one single person decided that day to kill his parents, it was that sort of the city or the life or the universe gave him this moment of horror and this moment of tragedy. So it wasn’t about who pulled the trigger. I mean, if you think of it, you can think of it in the saddest way possible: 9/11’s not about that guy pushing the plane forward into the building, it’s about historical events and the forces of history imploding inside our country. And that’s the way I think of Batman. Using 9/11 as a Batman metaphor feels cheap, but I did it.
Speaker 2: OK. It works, it works. Let’s see. OK. So because he’s pretty much like the only one without superpowers throughout Justice League, do you think that makes him the strongest out of all of them, or the weakest?
King: I think it makes him the strongest. Absolutely.
Speaker 2: OK.
King: I mean the thing about Batman that makes him cool is that he stands up there with gods, right?
Speaker 2: Right.
King: He stands up there with Superman, with Wonder Woman, with Green Lantern, these guys who have infinite powers, and he has nothing but his will and his wit. And he’s wearing a costume and underneath the costume he’s just a regular person. All that’s separating him from Wonder Woman is some spandex. And I think that’s what makes him the coolest superhero is to do that, to make yourself into something. And what is Batman’s superpower? I know they make a joke in the new movie, what’s his superpower? He’s rich.
To me, his superpower is that he took the tragedy of his life, the death of his parents, and he turned it into power. He turned it into hope. And he turned it into the ability to stand with the Justice League. And just being a human being, I feel like—those worst moments in your life where you’re in just—you have those moments that just beat you down and crush you and you’re on the ground, those turn out to be oddly enough the things that make you strong. Those are the things you call on in those moments where you just can’t get up. You’re like, “I’ve done this before, I’ve been conquered, I’m not going to be conquered again.” And so, to me, that’s what makes him strong is, like, he’s that. He’s despair turned into hope. And that’s the one thing you can’t defeat, man. You can’t punch that out of somebody.
Speaker 2: OK, OK. I just have one more question. One more question. And this may seem like a dumb question, but, exactly what does the bat in Batman symbolize? Because out of all things that he could possibly be, it’s a bat. And it’s not really the most scariest.
King: What? Bats are scary.
Speaker 2: They’re ugly.
King: They’re [inaudible].
Speaker 2: Exactly.
King: Why a bat? Why a bat? Probably because Bob Kane and Bill Finger thought it sounded cool.
Speaker 2: Oh, OK.
King: There are traditional answers. The idea that bats were the one thing he was afraid of, that Bruce Wayne, the little kid, was afraid of. So when he dresses up as a bat he’s saying, “I’m not going to be ruled by my fears. My fears are going to rule you.” Basically that’s the traditional answer.
Speaker 2: OK.
King: But, to me, the bat doesn’t basically symbolize anything. I think it’s not about the bat, that’s just the random thing he took about the costume. It’s about the parents and it’s about the will that we talked about before.
Speaker 2: OK.
Brogan: Thank you so much, Ashley.
Speaker 2: Great, thank you.
Speaker 3: I was wondering if there’s ever been a Batman story where Bruce Wayne loses all his money somehow. It seems like that would make it pretty hard for him to be Batman, and I’d be interested to see how he might try to work on that.
King: Yeah. It’s happened a few times in the history of comics. With Batman, man, it’s hard to think of a story that hasn’t been told. There’s a great South Park episode where basically, it’s a metaphor and South Park writers are trying to come up with new ideas and they realize that everything they think of The Simpsons had already done it. It’s like, The Simpsons did it, The Simpsons did it, every single plot. That’s the way it is with Batman. If you think, OK, has Batman ever lost all his money? Yes, it’s been done.
Brogan: Several times.
King: Several times, yeah. It was recently done just, like, three or four years ago.
Brogan: Just before you started on the book. Because there’s a reference to it in one of your first issues.
King: Yeah, that’s right. Yeah, he lost his whole empire, in Scott Snyder’s run. You sort of try to come back from that. So, yes, it’s been done. It’s good. But to me, I think, sometimes taking away the clichés are not good. Again, that’s the creating the tension and coming back to it. I think you need to start with your Batman, your Batman has to be sort of—you think of Batman as being the animated series, I think of it as the classic Batman in my head. The idea of Batman is a rich guy, he goes on a roof, there’s Gordon, there’s Alfred, that’s his universe. And then you sort of take off from there and you come back from there. And to me, Batman works better as the rich kid. It’s like a funny … I wrote a scene where he has a hamburger and he’s cutting it with a fork and a knife. And he has Robins, and Robins actually grew up pretty working-class and poor, and they’re like, “Is this a thing?” And they’re like, “Yeah, this Mr. Raised by the Butler.” This is actually what he says. I like that as part of his personality is that he’s kind of a little bit of a rich schmuck under it.
Brogan: All right. So I’m curious about the voices that Ben is going to play right now, which one you hear in your head most often when you’re writing Batman. Who is your Batman voice?
King: It’s funny because you don’t have the main one that I think most people think of when they think of a Batman, which is the animated series. That’s the main one, I think, most people, or at least most people in my generation when they close their head they feel like the one from the Justice League series and the … But, yeah, no, to me it’s Michael Keaton. I don’t know, I’m of that age that he was my Batman in 1989. And I really think Keaton nailed something about that character that no one’s gotten, which is kind of like how goofy and crazy Bruce Wayne is. And also, the growly voice. The growly voice in the Nolan films has been parodied too much. It’s been almost parodied to death. I can’t hear it anymore without hearing the parodies.
King: Keaton’s voice is the one I have in my head.
Brogan: That’s awesome. Well, this has been awesome. Thanks again for joining us for this.