On Tuesday, August 31, 2011, “Justice League” #1 dropped, officially beginning the experiment known as the New 52. DC Comics was not just relaunching all of its titles, it was doing so in a new, clean(er) continuity, in an attempt to revitalize and enthuse the fan base. It was an unprecedented move that bore good, bad, and mediocre comics.
Over the next year, we’ll be discussing each of the New 52 titles with a member of its creative team. We’re not taking any clear path through these books, but hopping from title to title, line to line, in an effort to spotlight the breadth of the initiative.
Today, we’re talking with John Layman. After making a splash with “Chew” at Image, John took over “Detective Comics” with #13 after Tony Daniel stepped off the book. His run lasted through issue #29, and along the way featured a few other Bat-issues, most notably the first twelve issues of “Batman Eternal,” which saw John co-write alongside the other Bat-luminaries of the time
You can follow John on Twitter (@themightylayman), and check out “Chu,” his current Image series which, not coincidentally, shares a lot with a certain homonym title from a few years ago.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You had been in comics for a little bit before this gig happened. How did it come that you were going to be writing “Detective Comics” for DC?
John Layman: Well, so it was weird. I’m friendly with Mike Marts; he knew me when I was an editor at Wildstorm, which, you know, would have been late 90s. He gave me my first kind of real Marvel gig, which was a 12 issue “Gambit” run. And we did a book called “Sentinel Squad One” which, of course, nobody read. Mike and I were always friendly. And you know, we connected at an Emerald City Comic Con. And it’s funny, because, people are always trying to chat up editors for work. And immediately, Mike kind of launched into the business spiel about here’s what’s going on in DC, blah, blah, blah, I’m like, “I don’t really care, Mike, I’m not looking for work.” At that point. I had “Chew,” and it was doing really, really well. I mean, we’re getting Eisner’s, and you know, sell, reprints, and all this sort of stuff, and just said,”Hey, Mike, let’s talk about your dog. Let’s talk about your kid. It doesn’t have to be about business. Let’s just be friends here.”
And I don’t know, a few weeks or months later, he called me up. He’s like, “Hey, I know, you’re not actually looking for work. But if there was a cool opportunity, you know, what would you think of that?” And I’m like, “Well, I don’t know, what’s, what’s a cool opportunity?” And he’s like, “Well, is Batman cool?”
It was just kind of on the strength of “Chew,” and, you know, you’ve get a hot book, and people want to hire you. And so Mike asked me if I wanted to pitch Batman, and I had never even considered it, you know, I had never worked for DC at that point, other than Wildstorm. And, you know, I always thought, if I was going to work at DC, I’d start with, you know, Elongated Man or something, and suddenly here I am, getting Batman on a silver platter. So, I turned in a pitch and after some fine tuning, they went for it.
Now, was writing Batman, something that you had always wanted to do?
JL: No. I mean everyone wants to write Batman, but it wasn’t something I had seriously considered, because I’m not a superhero guy. And again, I thought I’d have to, like, work my way up, I thought writing Batman would be, you know, years away, crawling up the DC ladder. And at that point, I hadn’t worked for DC at all. So, you know, that’s like asking “did you aspire to be on the number one TV show?” Well, no, I mean, sure. It’s cool, but I never thought it would happen.
So what was your how different from your initial pitch was what you got to write?Continued below
JL: I still think my initial pitch was better. So I ended up doing this thing called ‘Emperor Penguin,’ which was about Penguin’s like second in command trying to usurp him. And, you know, basically knock Penguin out of the way and become the ‘new’ penguin. And my idea was sort of like a legion of the second bananas. It wasn’t called that but like, you know, the Joker’s assistant, you know, you know, Scarecrow’s assistant, like, everybody’s henchmen, sort of, like, started started a whisper campaign, like, “hey, our bosses suck, you know, they’re always losing, they’re always getting killed.” And it was, I thought it’d be a cool way to introduce, not derivatives, but like, here’s like, a different kind of Scarecrow. Here’s a different Joker, and like, these guys all knock off their bosses, or, you know, put them out of commission, and become sort of the new rogues gallery for a while. And I think they thought it was a little too ambitious, coming out of the gate, and they’re like, we like the second second in command knocking off the boss, but maybe just do one, instead of the entire rogues gallery. And it may have interfered with whatever Scott Snyder was doing, too. So, you know, they took one finger off of the hand I gave them, which was fine.
Now, you mentioned, you know, it may be interfering with what Snyder was doing at that point, I think there were four ongoing bat titles that had Batman, the same character in the lead role for each of them.
JL: Gregg Hurwitz was doing “Batman: The Dark Knight,” I had “Detective,” Snyder had “Batman,” and Peter Tomasi had “Batman and Robin.” It was weird cuz Grant Morrison was still, you know, his shadow was still in there, but Scott was the lead guy. I had no aspirations to be the lead Batman guy. My career ambition is to have this creator owned book that’s mine, and I was trying to steer it on my own to 60 issues. So, if I am the second banana to Scott Snyder, I’m not going to usurp him. I was happy. If you could just read one Batman book, read Scott Snyder’s because that’s sort of guiding the whole Bat-verse. But if you’re reading more, you know, I’m gonna give you a good story every month.
Did a lot of your plans get derailed because of plans that Scott or others had for various characters?
JL: Sort of. Because I’ve been an editor, and was around for different events, I sort of saw how the sausage was made. With “Chew,” it was my own, no one could tell me what to do. It was like a symphony, where every note had to be perfect, and everything had to be in its place. But I treated Batman like jazz, where, like, I would go to Mike Marts and be like, “Hey, man, like who’s not in use? Give me three characters that maybe I can use in the next arc.” He’d mention that Clayface and Poison Ivy are available, and then I come up with my Clayface story. And, and I never really thought more than three or four issues ahead. And part of that was because in, I thinkthe second issue, or the third issue, they’re like, “Oh, yeah, Robin’s dead. We had to keep it secret, because Grant Morrison was killing him. But now you have to deal with it.” And I learned, the folks who have like an ironclad 12 issue thing that can’t change, they’re going to be screwed here.The key is flexibility. And also, I was just surprised to be writing Batman, so I was like, I’m just gonna have as much fun with as many characters that I like before they wise up and fire me, and so I just kind of like rolled with the punches.
Now, a couple of events sort of dovetailed along with your run; there was an issue that came out that was part of ‘Death of the Family,’ and there was a ‘Zero Year’ issue, too. Did you enjoy being a part of those events? Or would you have rather, the story had skipped over you?Continued below
JL: It was fun to be part of it. It certainly helped because you knew where you were getting; you were you were riding Scott Snyder’s royalty wake. So, no, I didn’t mind and again, you know, I, you know, it was apples and oranges. And I had my other, you know, creator owned book where I was God, and here, I’m part of the machine. The variety was fun.
It was a side gig that started to grow too big.
That’s an interesting perspective. Is that why you eventually checked off the book, because it was becoming too much?
JL: So, “Batman Eternal” rolled around, which was this weekly book, and I didn’t really want to do it. I’m comfortable in a cave, agonizing by myself. And the idea of working with five different writers just did not appeal to me. I like them all; James Tynion, [Scott] Snyder, Ray Fakes, Tim Seeley, great freakin guys, love to drink with them, love to hang out with them. I just I don’t want to co-write with anybody, you know?
Mike Marts is like, “Hey, we’re doing this weekly book, do you want to be part of it?” But I also thought that, if I said no, I would seem like a dick and not a team player. So I thought, I’ll just mirror what’s going in “Batman Eternal” in “Detective,” and I’ll get twice the money for one and a half times the work. But that turned out not to be the case.
There was a point where we went in for a writer’s retreat, and they pulled me aside, they’re like, “Hey, we really like what you’re doing on ‘Detective,’ but we got to rearrange the deck chairs; you’ve had your run, we’re gonna put you on a different book. And this was on the heels of a Clayface special, a “Catwoman” issue. I wrote an anniversary issue (“Detective Comics” #900) that turned out to be like, 50 pages, which I wrote in a month. And I am not a fast writer; I am a two books a month, two and a half books a month dude. And it was killing me. And suddenly Rob Guillory is finishing an issue of “Chew,” and I don’t have a script for him. That’s cardinal sin number one and not only that, that’s my bread and butter. There’s always going to be a Batman writer, if I fucked up “Chew,” man, that’s some serious career self sabotage.
So it seemed like a good good time to kind of get off the merry go round at that point. They pulled me off “Detective,” and then there was this weekly book that was like swimming against the tide, and I just thought, “you know what? I can always come back to the Bat office,” which turned out not to be true because all the editors that that loved me moved on. And now when I knock on their door, they’re like, “Who are you?”
Let’s go back to “Eternal” for a little bit. You said it’s like swimming against the tide. Why was it so tough?
JL: It was it just too many voices. Everyone was real positive, but a page would come in, and you’ve got an editor and assistant editor, and then five writers, and then everyone would have to chime in. Over the course of the day, you’d get maybe 3540 emails, and some of them are just one sentence, but like, every time you’re in the zone, suddenly an email would pop up, and I’m not so anal that I can’t leave an email unread. So it was so distracting, and you didn’t want to not contribute. You didn’t want to be the guy who didn’t write back, when everyone else was being so positive. I mean, it wasn’t hard work. It was just a lot of communication. And, you know, I prefer to write alone.
I think Snyder and and and Tynion kind of thrive on this. They were used to it, but for me, it was very foreign. It wasn’t a bad experience in any way, it just wasn’t my preferred way to do things and I was watching “Chew” head for a giant iceberg.Continued below
How tightly held was editorial at DC at that point? Were you having to rewrite a lot during your time on “Detective?”
JL: Mike Marts and Katie Kubert very accommodating. When you’re writing for what they want, they tend to give you less notes. Mike and I have always worked great, because he’s never been one of these guys who needs to mark his territory. When he gives notes, it’s notes, because there are editors who have to justify their job by giving notes, whether it needs it or not. But Mike and I had worked together for years at this point, and we trusted each other. If he gave me a note, it was either for continuity purposes, and it never didn’t make the book look better.
One of the things that was very important was Batman always had to be doing any doing something. Like even if if Alfred is in the Batcave giving him a report, Batman needs to be working out. They didn’t want any kind of like, static scenes of you know, of Bruce Wayne sitting at a table getting a report. There was a couple of rewrites, like, a Batman’s not doing anything. It’s like,” Okay, well, I’ll make sure doing stuff in the future.” And so, you learn from it.
You worked with Jason Fabok for the bulk of your time on “Detective,” and that was sort of his coming out party as a creator.
JL: Yeah, he was kind of a nobody, at the time. And it’s weird to have watched him blow up to a superstar. You know, just a kid, super enthusiastic. [It’s important to] write to your artist’s strength, or to their enthusiasm point. And Jason really likes toys. So it’s like, “Hey, we’re going to draw the Batcopter this issue or, we’re going to do the Bat-tumbler,” and you know, as long as I put in a toy, Jason got really excited.
He got excited by the Batcave. It wasn’t so much characters [that excited him], it was weapons, vehicles, settings. Batman was always doing something different, and you don’t want to use the Bat utility rope, every issue, so it was always a challenge to come up with new toys to keep Jason happy.
He’s gone on to do a lot with Geoff Johns, and he’s really, you know, blown up in a lot of ways
JL: He deserves it. He’s excellent for superhero stuff, and he was a super hard worker and super enthusiastic and it’s weird because I’ve, you know, I have worked with people who have gone on to blow up. I think I’ve pretty much gotten along with nearly every artist I’ve ever worked with. And it’s real cool to watch the people sort of become superstars. You’re happy for them. And you can say, “I worked with Javier Garrón or Otto Schmidt back in the day, and look at him now.”
When you left “Detective,” did you have a couple more arcs in your head that you were going to hopefully do if you had stayed on the book? Or had you pretty much done what you thought you were going to do?
JL: I was determined to do that second banana story. And now that I had introduced Emperor Penguin, I was eventually going to bring him back and have him kind of unionize with all the other henchmen; I was not done with that story. When they pulled me off “Detective,” I probably shouldn’t say what book they were dangling in front of me, but it was a character I didn’t know and didn’t really care about. Plus, you know, and the idea of like, “Fuck, am I gonna have to read like, 12 years of this guy’s stuff to know the character at a time when I’m really behind on my own book?”
With “Eternal,” I knew it wasn’t for me, but I didn’t want to leave him in the lurch. So I just explained my predicament. “I will stay as long as you need me, but as soon as there’s an out, you know, let me go.” So, you know, I think I, you know, I quit while we were doing four but ended up staying through 10 or 11, just to not leave anyone in the lurch. It wasn’t that I’m storming out. You know, “how can we work this out amicably?”Continued below
If it was offered to you tomorrow, would you want to go back to Batman?
JL: That’s a good question. I’ve kind of stepped away for work for hire, but the lure of Batman and spotlight and the royalty checks…it was fun. Like, I can’t say no, and I can’t say yes, it would all be dependent. But boy, if there’s anything that could lure me back to work for hire, it would be Batman.
That’s interesting, because you said earlier how you never think you’re gonna get to write Batman. What was there something to you that was more special and more fun about Batman than you expected it to be?
JL: Batman’s cool. Like, he’s got the best toys, he’s got the best villains short of Spider-Man. There’s a reason that everyone wants to write Batman because it is fun. And Batman is cool. Even as a middling superhero guy, I don’t go to the store and buy 20 superhero books a month, I read very few. But boy, yeah, the chance to write Batman was fantastic. Because, like, my mom didn’t understand “Chew;” I could put it under her nose and be like, “Look, we want awards!,” but she couldn’t understand it. But if I tell her I’m writing Batman even an old lady understands that.