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 chatting with Judd Winick. After doing independent comics like “Barry Ween, Boy Genius,” Judd made his DC Universe writing debut in 2001, taking over “Green Lantern” before going on to write “Green Arrow,” “Titans,” “Justice League: Generation Lost” and more. His most lasting work at DC is “Under the Red Hood,” which brought Jason Todd back from the grave.
After leaving DC in 2012, Winick has written and illustrated the all-ages graphic novel series “Hilo,” which will see its eighth installment hit shelves in February. You can follow Judd on Twitter (@JuddWinick), and visit his website for more info on “Hilo.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
So if I’m correct, you’d been writing for DC for about 10 years before the New 52 started, and you had been doing a lot of stuff in the Bat books. So when the New 52 came about, did you ask to continue in the Bat line?
Judd Winick: Oh, it was pretty much what Dan and the gang asked me to write. We were basically having a writer’s summit, and the crux of it was – and I don’t think I’m talking out of school – they were coming up on “Flashpoint” and there was going to be discussions about everything from, would we be doing any kind of big events around it and whatnot. But I think the main thrust of it was that coming out of “Flashpoint,” there was an idea of maybe doing a reset on a lot of stuff. I think they wanted everybody in the room to kick around ideas. One of the biggest ideas was maybe we were going to take away Lois and Clark, that they would not be married; that felt big and substantial and kind of interesting.
There was a lot of debate going on about that; it felt real dumb that Lois Lane, who supposed to be this crack reporter, didn’t know he was Superman? That began the discussion years and years ago and then there was some talk about what if it’s not enough? Should we do more?
I think it was about a month or so later, Dan gave me a call. And so that they had been thinking, and they had this huge idea to reboot the whole DCU. He and others were going around taking everyone’s temperature about what they thought about, and everyone was very excited. And after that they started kicking around, you know, you can call them assignments, but sort of, you know, they were doing what editorial does, which is match people up with books, they think really worked for them. And with me, they threw me the idea of doing “Batwing” and “Catwoman.”
So Batwing is tangentially part of this Batman Incorporated thing that Grant Morrison was doing at the time, but there was no Batman Incorporated title launching with the New 52. Was there any tension between what you wanted to do and Grant’s overall plans for “Batman Inc?”
JW: None at all. I mean, if it was, it was supposed to be an entire reboot. I wasn’t given any marching orders to pay attention to much of anything that came before. Quite the contrary; where folks were having trouble as creators was not letting go enough.
I thought the best analogy came a little bit late, which was their instruction to treat it like a TV show; treat it like you’re changing mediums.Continued below
Now, that era is somewhat notorious for editorial interference. But I’ve also heard that the Bat books under Mike Marts were really kind of left alone. So did you have more or less editorial oversight and, you know, last minute changes, things like that, than you had had before the New 52 started?
JW: I think everybody had more editorial oversight than ever before, because it was a whole new thing. You know, this wasn’t, you know, you’re picking up a new monthly and here we go. This was relaunching the entire line and with that, there’s a lot of moving parts. And everyone had to get into the zone of not picking up where we left off before. In some cases, it was hard for any particular writer on any particular monthly, because they were finishing up their monthly and they were told to do a reboot. And in some cases, there were some growing pains. So that took a lot of stops and starts for folks across the line. And yeah, with myself, as well. There were more editorial notes than in the past. But again, it’s new; that was sort of the point. And in some cases, folks didn’t know what they wanted until they saw it. There wasn’t anything too awful. I mean, some folks had a much harder time with it because it’s hard. You’re doing one thing and used to doing one thing, and suddenly, you really got to change gears and push creatively, in a good way. And even that even an act is challenging. You know, when you are given the marching orders of ”you can do anything,” sometimes it’s a little daunting. That might have been hard for some folks. I can’t really speak to what happened on the line in general, I can speak to my own experience. And yeah, there was more editorial chitchat. But again, we were starting the whole thing over, so it was to be expected.
Do you feel that most of that editorial chitchat led to the book being better? Or do you think that it was detrimental to the story you were trying to tell overall?
JW: No, it was definitely better. You know, I think the worst thing I could possibly say if I’m going to be really honest and hypercritical is that it came out different, not better, here and there. I mean, you know, in some cases, it just gets down to opinion. For the most part, I thought these changes were for the better. You know, we had good editors; they were good folks who cared about the books.
What was it like working with Ben Oliver on the initial arc of the book?
JW: Ben’s a genius. He really has a unique style and vision, and manages to create a sort of photo realism that is rarely seen but is still really, really stylized. I can’t really think of Batwing without thinking of him. Those initial stories were like, really deeply formative, you know, of the character. And working with him on it was just as extraordinary. He’s really just just really just out of this world. You know, I constantly love seeing more from him.
One of the most satisfying parts of reading your Batwing run is how much world building you’re able to fit into a very small space. By the end of that first arc, you have a real sense for who David is, for who his family is, for what the circumstances that he came out of were. Is that something that you had hoped to expand upon later and explore some of those things deeper if you had a longer run?
JW: No; my run was cut short, by me. Because David was a new character, there were lots of places to go with it. I was given pretty much carte blanche to really get in there and create and mess around and do you know, do things differently. The discussion around the character was that we didn’t want this to be just a carbon copy of Batman. We didn’t want it to be just some wealthy cat, who, for some reason, wanted to take on crime in his particular city. There was a fair amount of trying to educate the reader a little bit that, you know, Africa is a continent, not a country and this will be him in one city, like Batman. I could do fun stuff like, well, is this the first superhero that this city or or nation or continent has ever seen? No, probably not.Continued below
So, yeah, I was given a lot of freedom. And I definitely would have expanded on it further, if I’d stayed with the title. I started doing a graphic novel series [“Hilo” – ed.] and then when just getting into it, I realized it was going to take all the time I had, and I didn’t want tanything I was working on to be half assed. So that’s why it ended. I really did leave midstream, but for me, I just had no choice. “Hilo” is now up to the ninth book and I’m doing the whole book with the exception of coloring. And as I was getting into it and still trying to juggle the monthly books, I realized I’m not I’m not doing anybody any favors here, quite the opposite.
When you were leaving the title, did you have any say about the character of David Zavimbe not continuing on after you were done? Almost immediately after you left the book, we see the book shift to be focused on Luke Fox. Was that in the works when you were still on the title? Or was that a result of you leaving the book?
JW: You’d have to ask everybody but me. I will say that I didn’t know anything about that at all. I thought we built a nice house. don’t know if it came from editorial or from Jimmy Palmitti, who took over after the book.
What were some of the things you would have liked to have done if you could’ve made it work and stuck around?
JW: had more fish to fry with David; I just wanted to expand on him as a character. Because of the nature of the character that he flies, like Iron Man, and yet he didn’t go great distances. I saw him expanding beyond the city. And with that, I kind of enjoyed the idea that this would make him different from Batman. And at some point, he was gonna have a Robin. We wouldn’t be calling her – it was going to be a her – Robin, but he was going to have a female sidekick.
What I really enjoy about going back and looking at the book is that I think you were able to give David a really interesting voice. He didn’t really walk around looking, walking or talking like your average superhero. There was a real grounding to him, and a real sadness to him in some ways. Do you think that David would have changed much if you had another year to write him?
JW: We always thought that, initially, nothing was gonna be that fun for him. He carried around a darkness, as Batman does. Being raised as a boy soldier, there isn’t something you get past or get over. We are going to get into the PTSD of it a bit more. But at the same time, I was hoping to avoid just a lot of the Batman tropes that we’d seen, as you know, from Batman over the last 25 years.
You’re somebody who throughout your career has woven social messages into your books, and that continues with aspects of “Batwing.” Had the run gone on longer, would you have leaned more into some of the social issues that David would’ve been facing?
JW: There was, there was a lot of talk, which got thrown out quickly, that it should have more of a kind of fun Indiana Jones ish feel. A number of folks literally used language like, you know “he should be running through the jungle more!” The best thing you can say about that is that it’s really stereotypical, the worst thing you can say about it is that it’s really racist. And there were discussions when the book came out, that this was about Africa, and boy soldiers and starvation, and David’s parents having died of AIDS. My defense of that is that it’s like Batman. They come from a place that began with grief and despair. That’s how our world gets Batman! Y
But I was trying to infuse it with a little more of real world issues, real life experience that would happen to someone that could happen to someone from Africa without feeling like it was cultural appropriation or overly trite. I could have gone the route of an entirely different Batman as a happy Batman. He comes from a ton of money, he’s well adjusted, and he decides to save his city. As I talk about him kind of feels like Tony Stark, right?Continued below
But these are the choices I made with a character and I thought it had a chance if I had taken the opportunity to go on with it.
You mentioned cultural appropriation, which is obviously a huge issue whenever we are trying to tell stories that are outside of our experience. Did you feel any hesitation of writing an African character as a white American guy?
JW: Then? A little bit, because the discussion wasn’t really in the zeitgeist at that point. Now, I would have taken a much harder look at it, to the point of that, I might have passed on the project and said that I think a black writer would have been more appropriate. At the very least, I would have probably put it back to DC . “I think you need a black reader on the book. If it’s if it’s not, if it’s not the writer, it should be the artist. And if it’s not the artist, it should be the editor.
A part of that is also there weren’t a lot of black folks working for DC at that point.
JW: No, there weren’t. It isn’t like they’re breaking the bank right now either, but there are a lot more now than there were 10 years ago. I mean, honestly, I think 12 years ago, 13 years agoI would be really hard pressed to name more than a couple of folks doing a monthly activel. What I mean is someone who was doing a monthly and then would leave and go to another one, not just as a fill-in. In hindsight, it was deeply uncomfortable.
Thankfully, we get better about these things.
JW: Thankfully we do or at least we try to. The conversation, at the very least, has begun in earnest. I think the attempts were made editorial back then and, honestly, no one was really even having a thought about it at all. So but again, if I were if I were doing it over, it would be something that I would think about.
Now, we are 10 years from the start of the New 52. I know that you’re not as much a part of the monthly comics grind anymore now, but looking back on it, what are your sort of thoughts on it a decade removed?
JW: I thought was a pretty great idea. I thought it was gutsy.
Depending on your point of view, I’m either the first or last person to ask about this, because I was and still am someone who’s a little more prone to making big changes, who sees the value in that. The fact that a lot of these characters are 70 to 80 years old, but they don’t age. It’s the only, it’s the only genre that does this, meaning particularly superhero comic books. While some ofhe characters evolve, change, move on to other things, most of these gals and guys have to stay kind of stuck in amber. And with that, you really do need to shake it up to make it compelling
Here we are, it’s 10 years out from “Batwing,” and I think a lot of the things that we did, you know, are somewhat antiquated now. So going back 20 years, you have to change it up. And it’s not just how to go beyond not just to be relevant. It’s just to make sense of storytelling. You know, you get this small piece of real estate in which you’re gonna occupy anyway.
They do this all the time with movies and television. We’re onto the fourth incarnation of Batman for modern motion pictures: the Tim Burton [and Joel Schumacher – ed.] era, the Christopher Nolan era, the Zach Snyder era, and we’re getting a new one next year.
And you know what? They’re all fine. No one blinks. But in comics, when you try to change it up, you hear over and over again, “you’ve just destroyed my childhood.” The books you read in your childhood are still right there. It didn’t take them away from you. They didn’t put them in a bonfire and burn them. We’re just doing new things with these characters, which are owned by a giant corporation, who’ve been around for eighty years. Relax.