This week, Tony Daniel concludes his first arc as writer/artist on Batman, revealing the identity of the new mysterious Black Mask.
Over his six issues on the Batman title, Daniel won accolades from fans and critics for his portrayal of Dick Grayson in the cape and cowl, using a style that has apparently motivated DC to keep him on the title. (Originally, Judd Winick had indicated to Newsarama that he would return to Batman after Daniel finished up this story, but future solicitations show Daniel continuing as writer while Winick instead co-writes this spring's bi-weekly JLA: Generation Lost.)
Daniel began working on Batman in October 2007 as the penciler for Grant Morrison's debut as writer on the title. Since then, Daniel has not only established the look for characters like Damian Wayne and Dick Grayson/Batman, but he took over writing duties for the character during Battle for the Cowl, the three-issue event that established who would replace Bruce Wayne as Batman.
Now the artist/writer seems to be sticking around on the regular title, and his story has readers buzzing about the face behind the new Black Mask, a villain who first emerged during Battle for the Cowl.
With Black Mask's secret identity set to be exposed in this week's Batman #697, Newsarama talked with Daniel about they mystery and found out more about his status on Batman – and what's coming next.
Newsarama: Tony, before we start talking about the buzz surrounding Black Mask's identity, how do you write and draw an issue every month? Isn't that a lot of work for a 30-day span? Or did you get a big head start on this?
Tony Daniel: I did get a good head start – about two months, but I quickly ate all that time up outlining a few different scenarios for the six-part story. I had a whole half-a-year to work with, and for me, I wanted to make sure I had enough interesting elements to keep the story moving forward. The easy solution would be to do something decompressed, but I wanted to do something that moved along quickly.
But to answer your question more clearly, after I figured out the beats of the story, I had a basic page-by-page breakdown of each issue to draw off of, with rough dialogue added in. After all the art was done for each issue, I would provide final scripting dialogue. It worked out fine in the end, though next time I won’t eat away my cushion so I have more time to devote to the actual drawing of the book.
Nrama: During this arc, critics have been talking about your evolution as a writer since the beginning of Battle for the Cowl. Do you feel like your writing has evolved the longer you've been writing Batman stories?
Daniel: Well it’s like any art form where the more you do it, the better you get at it. You’re constantly learning as an artist, whether it be in a writing capacity, an oil painter or a penciller. I’ve already learned some lessons from the "Life After Death" experience that I’ll carry into my next assignment.
Nrama: In this last issue (#696), you used a non-linear format to tell the story of Dick's encounter with Black Mask. What was behind the decision to write it that way?
Daniel: I knew going in that I wanted that issue to be told in a non-linear fashion. I felt that with Dick remembering what he was made to do by the Penguin in fragments, we as an audience got to experience his memories with him. Be in his shoes. I feel that it was more a slight of hand, wherein it technically was non-linear, but the progression of exposition and beats were straight-forward.
Someone who takes a creative writing course in college is taught these kind of stories don’t work and should be avoided; they also tell you flashbacks are for lazy writers. But these are comic books, not prose fiction novels. This being a visual medium, there are techniques that can work that won’t in other forms. Art is about taking chances and not being afraid to push the barriers of what people come to know as the norm.
Nrama: Knowing how closely you worked with Grant Morrison on your Batman run together, and suspecting the importance of David Hine's recent work and upcoming Detective story, how much coordination is involved between you and the other writers of Batman titles?
Daniel: Mainly that’s done in editorial. When I’m working on my story, the other writers are working on theirs too. Or have their own plans that are unfolding. The Batman office helps to make sure no one trips over the other.
Nrama: Let's get to Black Mask, who has been the central mystery in this story. How did the idea behind the identity of Black Mask first emerge? Was this part of the planning for Battle for the Cowl? Was it something you were involved in?
Daniel: Initially, with Battle for the Cowl, I thought of bringing in a new Black Mask. Editorial had an idea they wanted to work on pertaining to his identity and we discussed it. But being that the Battle for the Cowl story was only three issues, Black Mask’s story would only be set up there. The thought was to carry it out after Battle for the Cowl, to be resolved in the main book. At this point, I wasn’t even dreaming I’d write the actual Batman book. That was for someone else to wrap up. So when I got my chance to get on as writer, I knew that his story needed to be concluded.
Nrama: How would you describe the Black Mask? What are the elements about him that have been revealed and that readers should notice?
Daniel: He’s a deeply conflicted person, and may not be in full control of his actions.
Nrama: It's been interesting to see how every little detail about Black Mask has been analyzed by readers. Even in an action-filled Batman story, is the idea still to have readers be detectives like the lead character?
Daniel: Well, certainly I was trying to go for that with Issue #696. At the end, when Dick begins to remember more, he pulls out a bullet that says to him "a-ha!" And my intention was for the readers to say it with him "a-ha! I know who you are bastard!" And for those who didn’t immediately pick up the clue when he did, they’ll find out a much easier way in the conclusion this week.
Nrama: The last issue showed evidence supporting Hush and Jeremiah Arkham as Black Mask (with that bullet comment you just made leaning us toward the latter), although some think it could be Mario Falcone or someone else. Not knowing how much you want to reveal, I'll just ask... who is Black Mask?
Daniel: Ok, you got me. It’s really…. [laughs]
Nrama: Tease. Besides revealing the identity of Black Mask, what were some of the other goals you had in this run concerning Batman's supporting cast and rogue's gallery? And how do you feel about where those characters are now?
Daniel: Well, Gotham was sort of turned on its head with Battle for the Cowl. The hierarchy of power with the villains changed. And with every action, there’s a reaction. So we see the underworld reacting to Black Mask’s takeover.
Nrama: It's easy to get caught up in talking about your writing, but along with the evolution of your writing skills, do you feel like you're growing as an artist?
Daniel: For me, it's about getting better while maintaining a good speed. It’s hard for me to gauge it until after a month or two goes by. And I’m never happy. Mainly it’s because I know if I had more time to spend on the art, I would be much happier with it. Good art takes time. The best artists in the business also happen to not put out 11 or 12 issues a year. I want to look as good as the guy who puts twice or three times the amount of time into their work. I think it's an elusive goal, but that’s what keeps me motivated to get better. Will that ever happen? I’ll keep chasing that goal for now. Eventually I'll slow down to do something that really shows what I can do. Maybe in a few years.
Nrama: You once talked about how neither your run on Batman: R.I.P. nor your Battle for the Cowl storyline were traditional "Batman-in-the-costume" stories. How does it feel to finally have drawn a traditional type of Batman story?
Daniel: I still think I’m in non-traditional Batman territory. We have Dick instead of Bruce, for one, so that changes much of the dynamic of what I think is traditionally a Batman story. Batman works alone, where Dick goes to trusted allies for assistance. But one of my goals for this story was to have Dick start to figure it out. Identify with Bruce more clearly, perhaps understand his methods a bit better.
Nrama: How comfortable do you feel writing and drawing Batman ? And if it's pretty comfortable, what do you think that says about you, Tony?
Daniel: I feel pretty comfortable because I’m working with many characters I already know a great deal about. So my research is fun and a lot of times, just refreshing my memory of events that took place 10 years ago or longer. If I were to do Superman right now in the same capacity, I’d have to take some time to go back and read every important chapter of his existence. And hopefully I get that chance too some day. But the key to being comfortable is knowing your surroundings.
What it says about me? I don’t know. I’m taking advantage of a great opportunity and having too much fun to think about it.
Nrama: When you were announced as the writer/artist who would follow Judd Winick and Mark Bagley's "Long Shadows" story, DC said you'd be on the title for six issues. Obviously, your run is going longer as you begin a new story in Issue #698, while Judd's beginning a gig on a different bi-weekly comic. Are you the ongoing writer on Batman for the foreseeable future?
Daniel: Pretty much. I’m going to be teaming up with Grant Morrison for a couple special issues as his artist, then I’m returning as writer/artist for Batman after that.
Nrama: Are you writing Issue #700? And/or drawing it? Are you involved in the Return of Bruce Wayne or its aftermath?
Daniel: Initially I was. But that changed as we figured out the upcoming schedule. When Grant requested we reunite for a couple issues, well, you don’t say no to Grant!
Nrama: Speaking of Bruce Wayne's return, it's coming just as your readership is getting used to Dick Grayson in the role. Is there a concern about switching gears already, or do you think it's best to end this while it's at its peak?
Daniel: I think we succeeded in what we wanted to do with Dick. We didn’t want people hating this. We wanted his stories and development to leave people wanting more of him. So that’s what I think happened. Though we all want Bruce back, Dick made his case for being able to stand his ground. I think whatever happens after this, Dick could very well be considered an A-list hero.
Nrama: As we round the corner on the Black Mask story, what's next for the Black Mask character? His identity is revealed this week. Is there more to come from him?
Daniel: We’ll have to see in Issue #697.
Nrama: Looking past this week's issue, what can you tell us about the story you're telling in your next arc that begins in Issue #698, "Riddle Me This?"
Daniel: It’s a short two-parter that focuses Batman on a string of strange murders. Riddle offers his assistance, but that only opens up more questions for Batman’s case.
Nrama: You're "writer only" on this arc, with artist Guillem March doing art. How has it been seeing someone else draw the Batman comic you wrote? How is your writing different when you know someone else is drawing it?
Daniel: Yeah, I needed a break to catch up and gear up for what’s next. I pretty much write the same way I write for myself. A basic panel by panel instruction with loose dialogue ideas. Guillem is translating it beautifully. In my mind, I think it will look one way, the way I would do it. But then when I see the pages, I see his take on it, and it’s usually better than what I was imagining! So it’s a great experience to collaborate that way.
Nrama: Just to wrap things up, Tony, is there anything else you want to tell your fans about your work on Batman ?
Daniel: Just thanks for all of their support. Thanks for taking the time to write me and support my work in general. I don’t take that for granted!