Peter Tomasi can be seen as a workhorse of DC’s writer stable. He is constantly dealing with other people’s baggage in his own series, including the Batman and Robin-altering death of Damian Wayne. But that’s not the only thread Tomasi has used to weave his Batman epic. Indeed, the loss of Robin has turned into survey of how the New 52’s Batman fits into rest of the Universe. Issue 30, titled Batman and Wonder Woman, plays with some of the best toys in the box. Patrick sat down with Pete and went through the issue page by page, so get your copy handy and join us on the Commentary Track.
Retcon Punch: First, can you talk about going after Wonder Woman and exploring the more magical end of the Universe. I know we’re chasing around resurrection pits and whatnot…
Peter Tomasi: Yeah, it seemed like a good place to explore. They’ve had Lazarus Pits all around the globe, and it felt like a cool bit that we hadn’t ever seen where: why wouldn’t a secret island full of Amazons have one? Maybe there’s a little something-something going on there, and we could play with a little magic there. I don’t really do this a lot, I’m a very linear storyteller — I wrote this whole sequence of them going to the island first and all this stuff. But then I got to this point:
…several pages later. And I thought, y’know, let’s cut to the chase on this. So I went right to that image. It lets us get right to the meat of the story.
RP: Just put a knife to Batman’s throat!
PT: Yes! That’s our opening image. I don’t usually do that, I like to build a lot, but this one just felt like we needed to get to a cool, dramatic moment of “why the hell is Batman here?”
RP: There’s a lot of rubber-meeting-the-road in this issue. You pack in so much: there’s a little history lesson, the monster at the end. It’s a lot of storytelling happening very quickly. I guess that sort of explains why the first page just jumps to knife-to-the-throat.
PT: Yeah, that’s exactly it. We just wanted to jump right into it. Sometime you want to approach the book thinking about the new reader. Maybe this is the first issue they’re picking up for some reason. I figured I could do all the exposition that I needed to, do some cool character beats and get right to it. It was something like a four or five page sequence getting to that point, and I would have had to make cuts elsewhere.
RP: Well, and it’s super exciting like this. Do you think the characters that you’re teaming Batman up with effect the pace of the issues at all?
PT: No… No, I don’ think so. The story’s been dictating most of that. But I wanted each character for a different reason. I definitely wanted Justice League characters in there. Just commercially, you don’t want… I don’t know… Batman and Mr. Combustible. When you take away a lead character — like Robin — you need something for fans to see on the shelf. They can say: “Oh, Aquaman, I love that book. Let me check it out.” Or “Wonder Woman — love it!” You always want to try to get readers on board. And as a writer that hasn’t had a chance to write Wonder Woman, I wanted to write Wonder Woman.
RP: So, there’s obviously some animosity between Wonder Woman and the rest of the Amazons right now in Brian [Azzarello]’s run.
PT: Yeah, I spoke to Brian. I wanted to make sure the timing and the relationships were right. The funny thing is that in my initial plot break-down, I had them still as snakes.
RP: Oh sure! That just happened.
PT: “You know what? Let me call Brian up, and lemme see what’s happening.” (laughs) So we had a nice chat, and he explained that they wouldn’t be snakes anymore, and I was like “okay, cool.” Now I get to have some cool Amazonian action with Aleka and Diana, and that all helps. Then I can also have Bruce kinda acting as a stranger in a strange land at that point.
RP: For sure — he’s a little more fish-out-of-water here.
PT: Yeah, he can’t just put of his fists and go. He’s gotta be like “I’m not here to fight you and I don’t want to piss you off — just help me do my thing.” It was a cool way to just suddenly have these scenes were just so much more dramatic that walking through snakes.
RP: So it was a much shorter beat when you imagined them as snakes?
PT: Oh yeah, it was like (whistles), walking through the beach. And Batman’d be like “huh… a lot of snakes…” “Oh, those are my sisters.” “Huh.”
RP: So then you had to recompress the story a little bit again?
PT: Yeah, it ends up moving a little faster at the end, but I get to have a little fun with the Amazonian stuff so it’s worth it.
RP: On the subject of having fun with the Amazonian stuff, how do you and Pat Gleason break down this action? You give it to him panel-by-panel?
PT: Yeah, I do. I’ll do “pages 2 and 3. Wide spread across the entire tier, the biggest panel on the page: close up of Batman, Aleka and Diana, with Amazonians behind them. Smaller panels 2 and 3.” I always have to add “please leave room for title and credits across the bottom.” (chuckles) Pat always brings his own spin on stuff.
RP: Then it jumps over to a little more with the Amazonians and then — boom: Ra’s in the jungle.
PT: Yup, and that’s what I was talking about with the new readers. Aleka gets to sort of stand in for our new readers, and we can explain to her what’s going on.
RP: And then you set up this clear visual cue: this is Bruce’s goal — this thing right here.
PT: If I’m remembering correctly, this panel of Ra’s going through the jungle, I just had it with Ra’s and his guys. But then Pat suggested we do a close-up of Damian, reminding readers of the goal itself.
RP: Is that also what drives having their likenesses carved into the sarcophagus?
PT: Yeah. The minute I thought of this story and the sarcophaguses, I thought “we have to see them.” If it’s just the top of a box, then it’s just a box, y’know? Seeing a child’s face invests you emotionally. You almost need to remind people that these are the characters.
RP: Was there any debate as to whether to put him in the Robin mask?
PT: Nah, I wanted to humanize him without it. Plus, you’re not going to bury him in the Robin costume.
RP: No, the Robin costume has to go in the case in the Batcave.
RP: Then we’ve got Wonder Woman throwing punches.
PT: Yeah, she’s like “You keep messing with my boy here, I’m gonna take you down!” I got the editorial note “You know, I don’t think Wonder Woman would throw the first punch.” But, she’s the God of War right now, so I can justify that. And Brian was behind me on that. Actually Matt Idelson was very cool about that, told me to go ahead.
RP: There’s also a cool moment here where Batman takes off the cowl. It made me think of the moment in Justice League 4 or 5 where he reveals himself to Hal or Superman or someone really early. That moment doesn’t totally read as Bruce Wayne-y, but this really does.
PT: Thanks. It’s really a key moment. I was thinking about that factor. It humanizes him in a quick way and just makes you realize how important this is to him. He sees a way to cut through all the bullshit at this moment in time. He knows where it’s going: it’s all gonna be nonsense fighting and magic and he’s just ready to move on to it.
RP: And here we’ve got Wonder Woman having a little moment with her mother.
PT: You know what’s awesome? I got Bruce and Damian, Ra’s and Talia: all these parent/child relationships. That’s really key. So there’s no way I can ignore Diana being on that island. She’s gotta stop and pay her respects to her mom for a moment. It’s awesome. So I asked Brian “1) is she still stone? and 2) what do you think of having this moment?” And he said “cool: do it.” It hooks her, emotionally, into Bruce’s story. In a way, she knows what he’s going through.
RP: Then we’re back to Ra’s discovering the cave.
PT: Once again, just kind of setting up his modus operandi and his megalomania. Trying to really convey that this is a guy who’s got plans on a global scale. Again, we’re establishing the stakes for newer readers.
RP: And again, Damian’s silhouette looming over everything.
PT: Ra’s hand rests on it too. Just keep personalizing it as much as possible.
RP: It’s interesting that Ra’s journey here isn’t characterized in the same way that Batman’s is. He doesn’t get a big humanizing beat like Batman or Wonder Woman.
PT: I wanted to keep him at odds with Batman’s mission. You can see that he’s still self-serving, to a degree. You know? He just wants this legacy of blood behind him. Propagate his plans, get all that League of Assassins stuff going. He’s just got a different perspective.
RP: Well and Batman and Ra’s is coming up, right?
PT: Issue 32, after Frankenstein.
RP: Then we’ve got that to look forward to!
PT: This is my moment to have a little fun in the middle of the issue! This scene came about after much of the issue had already been written, was already done. But this scene kept nagging in my head. I wanted to have some levity, a little extra fun. I wrote all the dialogue first — I usually write visually first and then do panel breakdowns — but the conversation really drives this bit. It’s fun and nice to have a comedic moment with this wacky oracle on the island.
RP: It’s that great no-nonsense Batman where he’s like “Okay, I know what this is — let’s just fucking do it.”
PT: Yeah, like “how many of these stupid things have to be in my way? Let’s just go! Here’s my gift.”
RP: Did you give Pat much direction on this character design?
PT: No. I just said she was blind and has some kind of cool looking something on her head. He had ideas, and… man (laughs) that’s freaky and cool looking.
RP: Then back to our bad guys.
PT: Yeah, that moment is key because I wanted to show a little more humanizing of Ra’s. What he’s about to do is a mistake. We’ll find out in the next issue that he’s mistranslated some text, that’s why they’re in this cave. I always want to show guy that you never think of as making mistakes making mistakes. Like the Frankenstein issue from when Robin first passed away (Batman and Red Robin 19), I got a lot of flack. People were asking “why is Batman doing this?” and “Batman wouldn’t do this!” But I always thought like “how do you know?” His son just died. Just because he’s normally so calm and collected? This is supposed to be the New 52 — let’s shake it up and do something that surprises readers. The characters have to change some times. The funny thing was — and you’ll see it in the hardcover, nobody knows about this: the hardcover for the stages of grief that’s coming on in June has the original page [of Frankenstein’s chopped up body] with no blanket on it. We see Frank dissected. Eventually, I had lunch with Dan DiDio and he was like “you put Batman in a place that we weren’t comfortable with, and that’s exactly what we wanted people to do, and we kiboshed it.” Then he goes “put it back.”
RP: That’s really cool. I hadn’t put it together until you said it just now, but Batman’s always been a character of expertise. The last year of Batman and Robin has all been about that expertise being thrown off by his loss.
PT: Deconstructed, yeah.
RP: Even more than that — ripping it apart. He doesn’t know how to deal with these feelings.
PT: Yeah! That’s more interesting to me. It’s like Superman when [John] Byrne took over. If they’re all super amazing and they don’t make mistakes, then I don’t relate to them. Without mistakes, you pull all the drama away. For me, it’s absolutely key to show that these characters are as three-dimensional as much as we can. They’re not infallible.
RP: Batman’s got such a specific stimulus for that: the loss of his son. Okay, so then we’ve got our heroes bursting on the scene, and some terrifying Gleason Batman-faces.
PT: The mouth that could swallow the ocean! Yeah, it’s awesome — I love that stuff. This is a cool moment where I got to tell Pat that the wide shot in panel four showed us the shape of the fit is a human figure. We can establish it a few pages early before we reveal that it’s a monster.
RP: We get a little perspective on it that the characters don’t have.
PT: It’s very Hitchcock. We all see the bomb under the table, but they don’t.
RP: Next, we get this amazing little history lesson of how Ra’s comes across the location of the island.
PT: Yeah, that’s a lot of fun. It felt like another moment for new readers. It got to be a cool little history lesson on the Amazons, and it shows how cold-hearted Ra’s is. It’s one panel — just running the sword through the guy’s head. It speaks volumes about Ra’s…
RP: Such a bastard.
PT: Yeah, he really is. This poor guy! He survives all of this and then it’s like “Hey, Ra’s” STAB!
RP: This is also a piece of the mythology that Brian Azzarello had invented for the New 52 and people weren’t totally positive on it.
PT: No, they were not — that’s right.
RP: And it’s only been recently that Wonder Woman has addressed it as a mistake from their past rather than just a part of their past…
PT: That’s what I’m taking about. How much more interesting is their past now? To me, that makes the Amazonians so much more interesting that they were making mistakes. Brian did this great scene, and being able to riff on it and present it in my own way is just cool. Again, it’s taking something we’ve seen a hundred times, but really shaking up the mythology and getting a whole new feel on it.
RP: So, we’re cruising on to moments before our monster-man is going to pop out of the pit.
PT: That’s my dedication to Plop Magazine. We’re squeezing out some exposition and ramping up the tension between the characters. And then, bottom of the page and the last panel, giving the first indication that the pit is not what you expect it to be.
RP: We should all be ready for what comes next, but it’s still a surprise! It’s amazing that — with the story packed as tightly as it is — that there’s still room for two separate splash pages.
PT: Yeah, it is. I love when fans say “I don’t know how you cram all this stuff into one issue.” Sometimes you get those issues of a comic where you’re like “Hey, this could have been 6 pages — why is it two issues?”
RP: Well, and I love a good decompressed story as much as the next guy.
PT: Oh, I do too!
RP: But this really moves along at an impressive clip.
PT: Yeah, awesome stuff by Pat — really cool looking creature. I had described him as full, tar-ish, jelly-ish, not-as-see-through-y monster that has the ability suck individuals in, and Pat just went to town.
RP: And here’s that “Throw me at the sarcophagus” moment.
PT: Can’t beat one of those. On to some big fighting, showing Wonder Woman pitching in to help Bats. Panel two there, we’re able to show more of what this creature is about. We get a little more information about him with that boulder just passing through. I love this moment here: the monster swallows these guys and in a weird way is taking a dump of just the inorganic matter.
RP: So are you giving this beat-by-beat?
PT: It depends. Sometimes I do panel-by-panel. This page, I did dictate beat-by-beat. But sometimes it’s like “Okay, Pat, pages 14 -17 we need to see this, this, this, this and this — here’s our entry point visually and here’s where we need to be end-wise. That’s when the magic occurs.
RP: As it goes on, things get a little more tentacle-y here.
PT: Yeah, the monster is stretching out, reaching for more people to swallow and dine on. And Batman — y’know, he had Damian on the previous page — now Ra’s has got him and the Ninja Man-Bats are flying them up and out of there. Batman sees his chance slipping away, so he’s pretty pissed off.
RP: You also show off all of Diana’s special tricks on this page. You’ve got the bracelets, the lasso.
PT: You gotta make sure that the heroes you’re bringing on stage for the issue get to showcase what they can do. You don’t want them to just be sounding boards. Plus, we hit her emotional beats earlier, gotta make sure to get the fight-y stuff out there too.
RP: I love this desperate attempt of Batman firing the tranq dart and then… does Ra’s karate chop it out of the air?
PT: Originally, the script called for it to hit him in the neck, and Pat kinda missed it, so we had to rework it. I even had them insert that sound effect so it was clear that Batman hit him and Ra’s just plucked it out. In the next issue, you’ll see how that pays off. It’s not just a tranq.
RP: Oh ho ho! Good work Batman!
PT: And then a nice, cool moment at the end there where we get to show how powerful Diana is. She takes down this massive creature
RP: …kinda while we’re not looking….
PT: She’s taking care of it! The woman steps in and does her thing.
RP: Then Diana pulls the monster close with the lasso, really making the thing talk beyond just “I burn” and “I hunger”
PT: It was key to make sure that this creature wasn’t a walking-talking, mindless kinda of thing. I wanted him to have a purpose in the story too. As we see in the next page, that pays off in a meaningful way when he asks to let the sun destroy him.
RP: That kind of casual cruelty is a kind of a Hallmark of Azzarello’s take on these gods.
PT: It’s cool to get to bounce off other people’s ideas. Throughout my books, I’m playing with other guys’ characters and worlds. It lets us work up to this shadow moment, where the monster disappears but the shadow is still there. I love that metaphor. Like putting your sneaker up next to your father’s show and realizing how big the shadow is that Batman casts on everybody’s lives. Damian was in that shadow too. That’s a nice thematic note to end on.
RP: Plus, ending with a sunset.
PT: Can’t beat that.
This was a lot of fun. It prompted me to re-read the issue and the added insight was great to have. I assumed that Ra’s had blocked that tranq shot, so I’m glad to know otherwise!
Those smaller actions are the hardest to depict on the page. So much of the artist’s job is to select the moment (and the camera angle, the gestures, the size and shape of the panel) to tell as much story as possible. It works great for big gestures and bodies in motion, but is much harder for small actions. I went to a panel where Michael Lark was talking about how much he struggles with simple actions like picking up a ringing telephone. Is it one panel, with the ring sound and the person saying “Hello”? Is it two panels, one of the phone ringing, and one with the person saying “Hello”? Is it three panels, one of the phone ringing, one of the person picking up the phone, and one with them saying “Hello”? He’s one of the clearest visual storytellers I can think of, and the fact that he struggles with this stuff shows just how hard it really is.
It’s nine panels. First one is the character reading the newspaper, second is the phone rining, third is the character raising their eyebrow like “can you believe the phone is ringing, third is the phone again, fourth is the character putting down the phone, fifth is the phone ringing again, sixth is the character walking to the phone saying “hold on, hold on,” seventh is the hand on the phone, eight is a low shot from below the phone ringing one last time, ninth is receiver to the ear: “Hello?”
I think that at least two of those panels should be splash pages. You know, to really give that scene the gravitas it deserves.
I mean, maybe the whole thing is like Invincible 99: every page is a splash.
That would only work if it was still that one scene. Like, page one is the guy reading the paper, and the last page is him saying “Hello?” If we learn literally anything else, like who’s on the other line for instance, then the whole comic is ruined. We’d probably need to add some kind of filler, of course. Like maybe the guy pauses to contemplate not picking up the phone (ya know, for suspense). Man, I’m getting chills just thinking about it.
It’s two panels: one is the phone ringing, the second is the character hitting the “IGNORE” button
I’ve written and illustrated exactly one comic book in my life for my senior project in high school. I remember getting a taste of just how hard it was to decide what needed to go on the page to get my point across. While I think I succeeded somewhat, oh boy did I fail a lot. Never had so much fun failing, in fact. I should try it again some time.
Last year, Patrick and I tried an exercise out of Scott McCloud’s Making Comics, where you turn a movie or tv scene into a comic. We did the same scene (the cold open of LOST‘s pilot episode), and those decisions were incredibly tough. It was interesting to see how different our choices were, and how much those choices influenced the feel of the scene.
Haha, I was joking just now, but I did pace that cold open over 20 pages. Maybe I have a problem with decompression…