Down the Hole of Nihilism … and Hope with BATMAN's SCOTT SNYDER

Batman #36
Batman #36
Credit: DC Comics

It's not uncommon to look across the sea of four-colored funnies every month and see a handful of comics bearing the name "Snyder" on the front. October proves to be yet another such month where newsstands will see a number of comics published by fan favorite, Scott Snyder, from across the spectrum of genres.

Earlier this month, the comics-prose hybrid American Vampire Second Cycle #5 from Vertigo hit shelves along with the Image Comics horror-drama, Wytches. During the week of New York Comic Con, fans also saw the release of Batman #35, which saw the Dark Knight Detective return back to the present day after the yearlong "Zero Year" story arc came to an end in August. Finally, the end of the month sees Snyder wrap up his nine-issue mini-series with DC co-publisher, Jim Lee, as they close the book on their vision of the Man of Steel.

Finding the opportunity to sit down once again to sit down with Snyder, we at Newsarama wanted to take some time to talk about his work, includinge titles that have not been discussed as frequently here or on other major news outlets. [Spoiler Warning: Some of the content in Batman #35 is addressed later in this interview.]

American Vampire Second Cycle #5
American Vampire Second Cycle #5
Credit: DC Comics

Newsarama: Scott, why the decision to split American Vampire #5 between prose and comics? What specific advantages and/or appeal did prose provide you in telling this specific story?

Scott Snyder: That's a great question! Honestly, I knew I wanted to tell a story about Gene Bunting, the guy who'd been the bookkeeper for the VMS, and he had secretly been on this path. He was trying to figure out who the Gray Trader was, was there a beast, is there an organization called "The Tongue," and all of this other stuff that's been hidden from the VMS by the VMS for many, many years. It was a part of our mythology when we started the series. My feeling was that he's a bookkeeper. He's a librarian. He's someone who follows stories. He follows trails through diaries – even if they're just scraps of paper.

Nrama: So, it was a pretty good issue to try this creative approach?

Snyder: It was actually the perfect issue to get prosaic and write a short story that this man was inspired by and believed was true – to have it be something that was a testament to the power of prose. I wanted to make it something where he believes there might be a devil, there might be a beast. It might even be under the ground somewhere in the American desert buried there during the gold rush, and he believes this because of a story. So I had to make the story so convincing that maybe you, as the reader, believe that within our mythology, it actually happened.

So, yeah, it felt like the place to organically do it.

Nrama: So what did your artist, Matias Bergara think when you pitched this idea to him? How did you bring him on board for this issue?

Snyder: When I spoke to Matias, who is a really good friend of Raphael's, I told him "What if we do half the issue this way and half the issue that way." He loved the idea, and he was just a joy to work with. I want to work with him more, you know, because he was just terrific. I felt his artistic style lent itself to those sorts of spot illustrations, which is where he can be incredibly evocative. His art has a sense of "cartoonish-ness" and elasticity to it, but it's also every emotional. For spot illustrations, that works really well. For things that people would sketch in their diaries, they get right to the heart of the feeling, or provide that quick portrait of somebody or a particular landscape. His art just speaks to that. Matias gets to the heart of what he's trying to depict without being overly detailed, so I felt it was a great issue for him to do that.

Nrama: I really loved the imagery of these two young guys hopelessly digging a hole to nowhere only to lead to disastrous results. What was your frame of mind when crafting this semi-stand-alone story?

Snyder: I wanted it to be something like how we approach all of American Vampire narratives, which is something that ties into the "American psyche" – what we think of as the plurality of that psyche that sense of what makes us who we are in spite of how diverse those legends and folk tales are. Here, it was a blend of that collective desire to strike it rich quick and make something of you by going out to find gold and digging into the earth. It's taking that risk to go find wealth and achieve the "American Dream."

But I think a lot of us realize that when you go and do that, you can wake up and discover nightmarish results. Sometimes, that dream and that promise of the American imagination aren’t real, you know? So it felt right to tell this story about these guys digging a hole at a time when gold was being discovered everywhere, and instead, they discover something truly, truly terrifying. Maybe it is just a hole, and the hole is going deeper, and deeper, and deeper. Maybe they're not going to find something, but instead, they're creating this abscess in the earth that they're going to fill with something that's going to fill everyone with terror.

Nrama: There are certainly some terrible images we see towards the end of that issue. Switching gears to Superman Unchained, can you talk about where this comic ended from where you and Jim Lee thought it would go? Did you accomplish what you set out to do as a storyteller with this book?

Superman Unchained #1
Superman Unchained #1
Credit: DC Comics

Snyder: Honestly, it's one of the rare comics that is ending exactly where I pitched it to end. It's very weird as there are a lot of times where you'll see a callback from issue #1 – the boy with the binoculars looking at Wraith, Luthor's paper folding, this notion of what the sun means, who Superman is, the satellite that falls in the first issue – a lot of the things, both visual and narrative in nature, are echoed in issue #9. That was all designed from the very beginning.

What Superman Unchained is all about for me – not to spoil it – is why I think Superman is great. It's meant to be a kind of challenge to the kind of conventional take on Superman, which is that he stands for "truth, justice, and the American way," that he's this monolithic symbol of all things that are good and right. To me, you start writing him and you realize he doesn't know what the hell he's doing half the time. It's basically trial and error. He's doing the best he can. It's not that he stands for anything; if anything, he stands for following your own moral compass even if that compass leads you to places that make absolutely no logical sense whatsoever. Spell your own doom. Why would you create a human identity, fall in love, or even grow affectionate towards all of your human friends and coworkers when you age much more slowly than them? In a few years, they're going to realize that something's wrong. Why would you ally yourself with no government if you know every government is going to be building weapons to take you down if you interfere with a protocol of theirs? Why would you help with some things, some catastrophic events but not others like political oppression?

Superman, to me, is inspiring and wonderful because he isn't a straight beam of light that's always right. He's actually this zigzagging, trial-and-error beam of light, and in that, he's ten times as more inspiring than if he always knew the right thing to do. In that way, the last issue is very much about that idea.

One of the things about issue #9 I love the most – again, not to spoil it – is that I think the person who understands that the best about Superman, in some ways, is Lex. There's a reason why, and it's a fun secret we reveal at the end of the issue. So it really ends where I hoped it would end, and I couldn't be prouder of it.

Superman Unchained #9
Superman Unchained #9
Credit: DC Comics

Nrama: Now, in what ways has working with Jim Lee been different from your other artistic collaborators?

Snyder: I think in some ways it's a series where working with Jim is very different from any other artist I have where his strengths are so incredible when it comes to certain iconic moments. And he's great at small moments, too, but he just nails these bombastic, muscular actions. You know, those things that are just so …viscerally giant and surreal. So I wanted to end the story in such a way that would bring everything together in this sort of culmination where the Earth hangs in the balance, the superheroes are powerless, Lex Luthor and everybody is about to die, and it raises the stakes with the whole cast. And Jim really allowed me to go there. He added pages to this issue that weren't in the actual page count, but he did them, so he made it even bigger than it was supposed to be. I really couldn’t be any prouder of it, honestly.

I've been nervous about it at times because Superman has not been the character I've gravitated towards since childhood. I've loved him dearly, but Batman is always the one I've always felt an affinity for. If I had to pick a character to write after Batman, it was immediately Superman. But I'm scared writing him in the same way I was scared writing Batman. But what Jim has been able to do and where this story goes, I'm as proud of this as anything else I've done.

Nrama: One thing that stood out to me about Superman Unchained from the very beginning was that it seemed to operate outside of the New 52 continuity in the sense that the events taking place within the DC New 52 haven't really informed or influenced the narrative trajectory of Superman Unchained - it stood alone. This is something that has largely defined your writing style in Batman as well. Why take the story in this direction, and in a world where the various characters are interacting with one another, was it something DC was open to or did you need to "work them over" to have this happen?

Snyder: No. In a lot of ways, if you look at Batman, it looks like it operates within a lot of the DC Universe, but it's also pretty singular in the way it goes about things. I try to design stories where you don't have to read anything else to enjoy that story. I hate stories where it depends on you knowing what's going on in the other books to make sense of what's happening in that one. It doesn't mean I don't want to take pieces and share and be a part of a greater universe; believe me, I'm pretty aggressive in the "Bat World" to ensure we're all coordinated. I love knowing that it all makes sense. But Superman Unchained does take place in New 52 continuity as he's not at The Daily Planet. And at the end of it, it does sort of coincide a bit with what's happening in Geoff [Johns'] run in where he is with his feelings about The Daily Planet.

But if it means reflecting Ulysses or what's going on in "Doomed," who wants that? My feeling is that if I'm a reader and I'm reading Batman, do you really want Gotham Academy #1 to be saying "Guess what! The Joker's back!" No, you don't. If you do, honestly, I don't know what to tell you. What I want is books that are individuated and that have stories that they want to tell about these characters. Yes, they exist in the same universe, but they don't depend on you knowing what's going on in the other end of it. If something big is going on in Batgirl, I can reference if I want to be a nice nod, but if I had to reflect it…Well, for example, there was a big storm going on in Batman once. It was something seasonal in Batgirl, and editorial called and asked if I could work it into the story. I said, "If I can, I can."

Those things are nice. What's not nice is if in Superman Unchained I have him say "Thank God I'm back from being Doomed!" That's not nice. You don't want that. If you do, I apologize to all of you out there, but I'm not interested in that. What I'm interested in is being able to read a book like Superman/Batman: Public Enemies. I want to read a book like The Search for Kryptonite. I want to read a book like A Superman for all Seasons or anything that you read that is singular. Some of them happen in continuity, some of them don't. But eventually, you want to be able to pick up the trade or the arc and not remember that "Doomed" was going on at the same time or that "Infinite Crisis" was happening over here.

It was a conscious choice to make it in-continuity but not dependent on it - the same way I write Batman.

Nrama: You've spoken before about how if this was the one Superman story you got to tell, this is the angle you would take. What aspect/s of the story do you think stand out most? If readers are standing in a Barnes and Noble, maybe they're going to pick up Superman: Red Son, because they want this Elseworld's story exploring communist worldview on American superheroes. If they're standing there looking at a trade of Superman Unchained, they're going to pick it up because…

Snyder: It really is – and I love Superman. You're really getting me nostalgic over how much I do love Superman: Red Son. My top Superman books are All-Star Superman at the top, Red Son, A Superman for all Seasons, I really loved Gary Frank and Geoff Johns' Superman: Secret Origins…there's a bunch.

What Superman Unchained has to offer is it looks like a classic Superman story in the modern age. It's larger than life and all that. What it really is, I hope, is a breaking down of Superman through saying "What you actually think about him isn't true. He's not this singular, inspirational sort of figure. If you look at him piece by piece, he's the opposite. But in being the opposite, he's more inspiring.

Someone who always knows the right thing to do and is always sure of himself…as you cut through them, there's only that facet to his character. To me, Superman gets described that way a lot. People say he's hard to write because of this element. When I approached him and began writing him, I felt he wasn't all about that. He's not like that at all to me. He's the guy who's trying desperately to figure out, case by case, what the hell is the right thing to do in these giant sets of circumstances with these astounding consequences falling on him if he does the wrong thing. Sometimes he makes mistakes, as you'll learn in the last issue, and sometimes he does the "right thing" based on the majority's perception of what the "right thing" really is.

In the end, what's really inspiring about Superman is he can go to sleep happy because he always does the thing he thinks is right. But there's this discrepancy between that and doing the right thing. Superman is fascinating because he does so many of the wrong things because he believes they're right. In doing that, he should be as big of an inspiration as any other American folk hero.

Batman #36
Batman #36
Credit: DC Comics

Nrama: Okay. I can't let you go without talking a little about Batman. For a guy who has fought parademons and literal monsters, traveled through space and through time; why is it when Batman thinks about this one villain, he has real fear in his voice 'no, not HIM!' Why is the Batman afraid of the Joker?"

Snyder: The reason the Joker looms so large for Batman in our version of him is, to be fair, everyone has their own version. For some creators, Penguin could be a more terrifying villain because he represents class. He says "You're just a rich boy, a blue blood. You'll never be the sort of folk hero you want to be." Or maybe Harvey is. He says "I'm the duality of you taken to the umpteenth degree."

For me, Joker is the primal villain. It's not because he's assumed to be the great villain, but because he sees what Batman is most afraid of. He says "Yes, that's true. Let's overcome that together as allies. But I see what you're afraid of is the truth, and let's not deny it." The Joker is who the Joker is because he believes that life is meaningless. He believes that what you do with your life matters not at all. It's all a joke, and it's the greatest of all is that you think your life means anything. When you are all done, and you build a monument or a pyramid, it's all going to dissolve. You mean nothing in the grand scheme of things: You're an ant.

So he believes in inviting the violence since life means nothing, as you read.

Nrama: Whereas in your future depictions of Batman, his life and legacy continue on. The Batman becomes a sort of living monument.

Snyder: Yeah, that's what this story is about. In "Death of the Family," Joker is saying we've transformed ourselves. By being the Joker, there is nothing beneath the mask of this jester. Life is nothing but the joke. You say "No, it's not." and we engage in a battle, and in its own essence, makes us bigger than the things we're talking about. We inherently mean more and are more than the kind of mortals we are discussing. We become gods. We are gods. People can side with you or they can side with me. But the joke in that is we've escaped our own mortal bodies. We've transcended.

When Batman rejects that for his human family, he essentially spurns the Joker. Now in this story, the Joker is looking to say "Well, you know, I'm bigger than all of it, you're just a man. And now I'm going to show you how you're just a man and how you and everything about you is mortal and fallible. I am going to burn and break everything and leave you behind. I am forever, and you are not.

That's what this story is deeply about. I'll tell you the truth, when you write Batman, not to get too intimate, you have to make him your own. Grant Morrison told me that. You have to make him about your anxieties and what inspires you about him. The thing I have the most anxiety about, if you look at every arc I've done, is that: your own mortality. Honestly, the fact that whatever you do doesn't matter. Maybe you'll turn 80, or maybe a car could hit you tomorrow…it sounds stupid, but I get very depressed about those things sometimes. But Batman says everything you do, every day, matters. By stopping terrible things, you're inspiring people all of the time. The Joker is saying no, it doesn't matter at all. And if you think it does matter, I'm laughing at you. I'm going to show you why it doesn't matter in a kind of nightmarish sort of scenario.

Credit: DC Comics

The reason Joker looms so large is that he is my nightmarish figure in the mirror that says exactly what you're most afraid of. I think that's why he figures in so largely for Bruce, in our version of Bruce. This is kind of their last battle, in my mind.

Nrama: Wait. Are you saying…

Snyder: I don't want to say that I'll never revisit him. I feel like everyone does that. They're like that rock band that says "We'll never get back together! We're done!" And then ten years later they're on a reunion tour. So I don't want to say I'll never use him, but this is definitively the end to the arc that we began, and I don't have any real intentions to come back to him after this.

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