WARNING: This panel report contains spoilers for "The Dark Knight."
With "The Dark Knight" receiving nearly unanimous critical acclaim and breaking multiple box office records, DC Comics reminded fans that Batman appears in comic books, too, at the "Batman: No Rest for the Dark Knight" panel at Comic-Con International Friday afternoon.
Batman line editor Mike Marts was joined by current Batman writers Grant Morrison (Batman) and Paul Dini (Detective Comics), 100 Bullets creator (and writer of an upcoming Joker graphic novel and segment of the "Batman: Gotham Knight" DVD) Brian Azzarello, Detective Comics artist Dustin Nguyen, and legendary Batman artist Jerry Robinson.
The movie, just released last week, was obviously on a lot of minds, with Marts facetiously asking "Has anyone seen this movie, 'Dark Knight'?" at the opening of the panel. Marts then turned to the panel to talk about their recent Batman work.
"I've just been working on the last pages," said Morrison of current Batman story arc "Batman R.I.P." "Bruce is in trouble."
Speaking further later in the panel, Morrison said the story was him asking "What would you do if you took Batman to the limit," against the "ultimate evil mastermind."
"It's the biggest, most twisted bad guy we could use against Batman," said Morrison of the villain behind "R.I.P." "And no one's guessed him yet...it's so up front and obvious. Every issue tells you who you're dealing with it, and it's a character that everyone on the planet knows."
Dini discussed his current Detective Comics arc, saying "Hush is a real sick bastard." He's also returning to his animation roots, having written an episode of the upcoming cartoon "Batman: The Brave and the Bold," which he said during the panel will feature Bat-Mite.
The first few questions were dominated by questions about the Joker, not surprising given the praise given to the late Heath Ledger's performance and Jerry Robinson's history with the character.
"I was very impressed with Ledger's performance," said Robinson. "It was very nuanced, his own take. Quite different than Nicholson's interpretation, or others."
"Was he closest to your vision?" asked Morrison.
"Well, not really," said Robinson. "His interpretation was so much his own, but he did capture some of the spirit of the original," said Robinson. "I found that exciting."
Azzarello discussed his work with the character in the Joker graphic novel, saying "Joker's the most violent book I've ever written. Completely bleak, and ugly. Just the ugliest story. It fits that character like a suit.
"Make it unhappy from the beginning and just go with it," said Azzarello of his take on the story. "I don't think he's funny, for one thing. I think he's one of those guys that thinks he's funny. We've all had friends like that."
Dini had similar thoughts on writing the character.
"I wouldn't call the Joker exactly easy to write," said Dini. "I always think of the Joker as the ultimate bully. Nothing he says is funny except to him."
"Joker's great because he's changing all the time," said Morrison, speaking specifically of his fondness for the original version of the character. "I kind of went back to that Joker. He's not funny at all, I agree with Brian. He's bad news."
Robinson said he's enjoyed seeing the character evolve over time.
"I would expect it to have a different take over the years as it has grown, that's what makes it vital," he said. "I don't think if we kept it exactly the same it would be what it is today. But they've kept the essential core of his being."
The creators also mused the mysterious, ambiguous nature of the character's origin.
"We thought it would be really cool if we left him white," said Robinson. "Make that part of the mystery of the Joker. I don't think we would have ever explained it. We discussed it, and decided not to it, to keep the aura and the mystery of the Joker."
"I think that works best," said Morrison, "and that's how they kept it in the movie, that we didn't know. He's a mask, he's chaos. He doesn't have to be a human being. It shouldn't make sense. It should be something so weird we just don't get it."
Dini said him and the rest of the writing team of "Batman: The Animated Series" resisted giving Joker an origin story, because he could have become a sympathetic villain, like Mr. Freeze.
"He works better as almost a ghost, or a mysterious spirit," said Dini, "than someone you care about too much."
Nguyen talked about his preference for the Joker visually, saying that he doesn't like a heavily red lips, and likes to draw him with only a dash of red.
A fan asked about 2000's "Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker" direct-to-DVD film, specifically if the creators enjoyed that version of Batman (apparently unaware that Dini wrote the screenplay.
"I haven't seen it," said Morrison. "Was it good?"
"Yeah, it was pretty good," Dini answered.
When asked whether or not they looked to any real people for inspiration on writing the Joker, the panelists were mostly stumped but Morrison mentioned Sex Pistols lead singer Johnny Rotten (who Ledger also cited as an influence), and Azzarello said "maybe Richard Speck."
The issue on whether or not the film producers should try and recast the Joker in subsequent films came up, with the panel all answering in the negative.
"Couldn't do it," said Morrison. "I always thought Crispin Glover would be a really good Joker, but that was 20 years ago, maybe. I think they're going to have a hard time replacing Heath Ledger."
"I don't think they would dare do it," added Azzarello.
Even the Joker's sexual orientation came up.
"Everything is a weapon to the Joker, including sexuality," said Morrison. "He's whatever makes you uncomfortable."
Non-Joker related topics came up as well, like what kind of challenge it is to write a character with nearly 70 years of history.
"There's certainly a wealth of material," said Dini. "The risk is sometimes I'll come up with an idea and have to look back and think if it's been done before or better."
"It's really hard to tell a story that hasn't been done before with Batman," Morrison added. "That's why I decided to make my Batman run about the history of Batman. It was really important to fit all that into the back-story."
A fan asked a question that was very unpopular with the panel - whether or not it was a good idea for Batman to break one of his rules and "have permission" to use a gun for the purpose of a storyline.
"No, never! That's why Batman's so cool! He doesn't use a gun and he's still kicking ass," answered Morrison. "That's the point!
"It's really important, that's his psychology. If Batman kills anyone he's just another soldier. There's a million soldiers. We don't need another soldier, we need Batman."
Another tenet of the character - his inability to have a stable romantic relationship - was discussed, specifically if Batman could be in a relationship and happy yet still be Batman.
"No," said Morrison. "She'd say, 'You're not going out tonight. I want to watch "Mamma Mia."'"
The creators even talked about what villains they'd like to see in the next "Batman" film.
"Man-Bat and Catwoman," said Morrison.
"Catwoman seems logical now that the only female character in their mythos is dead, so they need a new one," added Azzarello.
"Bruce needs some lovin'," Morrison joked.
Dini said that it seemed that by leaving Joker alive and Batman wanted by the cops at the end of "The Dark Knight," that perhaps they were setting up a third film with Joker acting like Hannibal Lector in "Silence of the Lambs," and helping the police get in the mind of Batman.
"I really don't know where they could go with it now," Dini said.
Given all the talk of other media adaptations of the character, it only makes sense that the panel was asked what versions were their favorites.
"'Dark Knight' is the best Batman movie ever made," -said Morrison. "I like Adam West, but it's a very specific take. Nothing beats that 'Dark Knight' movie. It's the best Batman movie ever thought of."
"I'd say the animated series, too, did a fantastic job with the character," said Marts.
The panel also addressed who they'd rather see as Batman other than Bruce Wayne ("I can't tell you that, I'm doing it," said Morrison in a possible "Batman R.I.P." hint or misdirection), how the writers relate to Batman (Morrison: "Well, I'm a millionaire playboy." Dini: "I have a string of young wards back at the house."), the status of Ace the Bat-Hound ("I think he's dead," said Morrison), how long the writers intend on staying on their respective titles (Morrison: "For me, it's indefinitely. I'm just staying here until I die." Dini: "I'm there until they throw me off."), the status of Hush after the current Detective story ("I can't say, it's a big surprise," Dini replied, and their favorite Batman storylines (both Morrison and Dini mentioned the 1973 Dennis O'Neil and Neal Adams story "Joker's Five Way Revenge").