Prolific screenwriter and novelist Alan Brennert is the first to admit he’s only had a handful of comic book stories published – but they’re considered some of the most acclaimed and influential in DC’s history. Now, readers have a chance to read all his work in one place with Tales of the Batman: Alan Brennert, a collection of his different work for DC over the years that’s in stores this week.
Published across different titles, including the original The Brave and the Bold and Secret Origins, the character-driven stories have been reprinted across separate “Best of” collections over the years. The collection includes such tales as “To Kill a Legend” (where the Phantom Stranger offers Batman a chance to save his parents from the mugging that will create Batman) to “Time, See What’s Become of Me” (where Batman shows Hawk and Dove how things have changed since the 1960s era that spawned them) to “The Autobiography of Bruce Wayne” (one of several Earth-Two stories, depicting Batman and Catwoman coming together), and many more, including Deadman having an unusual encounter on Christmas and a new look at the origin of Black Canary.
Readers who aren’t familiar with Brennert’s work in comics have likely encountered it in another medium – in addition to being a Nebula-winning prose writer and author of the “Hawai'i” series of novels, he’s written for a variety of TV shows, including the revivals of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, Wonder Woman, Buck Rogers, Star Trek: Enterprise, Stargate: Atlantis, and an Emmy-wining run on L.A. Law. With his comics work about to get a new audience, we spoke with Brennert about his history with comics, the influence of his stories, whether he’d want to do more superhero tales, and more.
Editor’s Note: Interior pages shown here are from the original comics, not the collected edition.
Newsarama: Alan, first off – how does it feel to see these stories collected at last?
Alan Brennert: Writers love short story collections; it’s like having all your wayward children gathered under one roof. I’m as proud of these comics stories as I am any of my short fiction, so it gives me great pleasure to see them collected in one volume—especially the Black Canary and Deadman stories, which have never been reprinted before.
Nrama: How did you become aware of the collection – did DC contact you directly?
Brennert: No, it was through social media. What isn’t these days? Mark Waid saw the listing on Amazon and announced it on Twitter, Kurt Busiek posted Mark’s tweet on Facebook, and that’s how I found out. DC did contact me a few days later and asked if I’d write a new introduction to the book, which I happily agreed to.
Nrama: Of the stories, were there some you hadn't read in a while, and if so, what was that experience like? Which mean the most to you?
Brennert: The ones that mean the most to me are probably “The Autobiography of Bruce Wayne”—the story of how the Golden Age Batman and Catwoman fell in love—and the Deadman story “Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot,” featuring a special guest star that I will not name here, in case there are any potential readers not familiar with it.
I love mining continuity as a way of exploring character, and these two stories are among my favorite examples of that.
Nrama: Tell us a bit about how you came to work on the DC books in the first place.
Brennert: I started out as a comics fan, a “letterhack,” even publishing four issues of a fanzine called Fantazine with Martin Pasko (for whom I plotted a two-part Wonder Woman when he was writing that title). But instead of breaking into comics, I went into the science fiction field, publishing short stories in most of the SF magazines of the 1970s, then a novel, and then moving into television.
In 1980 I was having dinner with my old friend Paul Levitz, who had just taken over editing of the Batman books for DC. I happened to have an idea for a Batman story that I offered to give to one of his writers, and he shot back with, “You’re a writer. Why don’t you write it?” Well, okay, why not?
That idea became “To Kill a Legend,” which I assumed would turn up as a fill-in issue somewhere—but to my astonishment Paul scheduled it as the lead story in Detective Comics #500.
Nrama: "To Kill A Legend" has a classic ending, homaged in a few places, that creates a Bruce Wayne who'll become Batman without that need for vengeance governing his decision to adopt an alternate identity. Beyond the "Bruce is always meant to become Batman" point, what did you want to say with that ending? Also curious if you ever thought of showing stories with that "other" Batman, just as you went to Earth-2 – in some ways, The Dark Knight Rises’ ending hit a similar note for me, this possibility of a Batman operating from a different set of motivations and perspective.
Brennert: In a larger sense, I suppose I was pointing out that heroes are not always — not even usually — born of tragedy. There are heroes in our real world — soldiers who give their lives to save their comrades; firefighters who run into burning buildings —who do it not because they saw their parents gunned down but because it’s the right thing to do.
They were shaped by some moral guidance, not scarred by tragedy, and ironically it’s the Earth-One Batman who unknowingly provides that moral guidance to his Earth-Five counterpart. (That was its pre-Crisis designation, according toCrisis on Infinite Earths: The Absolute Edition. When I read that I felt like Gardner Fox in 1963.)
And no, I never gave a thought to telling more stories with that Batman — the point was made, I didn’t see a need to revisit it.
Nrama: And what, to you, is the key to a good Batman story, or understanding the character of Batman?
Brennert: I think Mark Waid came up with the best summation in Kingdom Come when Superman tells Bruce Wayne, “When you scratch away everything else from Batman, you’re left with someone who doesn’t want to see anybody die.”Which is exactly the point of “To Kill a Legend”: despite everything, Batman can’t let the Waynes of this parallel world — can’t let any innocents — die. And he doesn’t.
Nrama: What's most interesting looking at your work in total is how much influence these stories had on the continuity and on other writers -- even small bits, like Wildcat admitting to the second Black Canary he had a son who was abducted and never recovered, have come into play as story points in recent years.
Have you had a chance to see how other writers have used some of your ideas, and if so, were there instances you particularly appreciated – or perhaps did not appreciate?
Brennert: It’s certainly very gratifying to see ideas of mine — like Batman’s scarred back from “Autobiography”—become firmly established parts of the Batman canon, even turning up in movies.
I’ve always been proud of the origin I created for the Golden Age Catwoman in that same story, but honestly hadn’t realized the influence it’s had until it was reprinted in Catwoman: A Celebration of 75 Years, where the editorial text noted that my origin “was the first to incorporate an element of resistance to social and sexist ills...this more feminist approach to Catwoman would become fundamental to her.”
I read that and thought, well, yeah, I guess that’s true, but I hadn’t consciously made the connection before.
Nrama: Another thing looking at your stories collectively is that they deal with emotional consequences. Which is something you find in most dramatic storytelling, but these particularly invest in how they apply to a comic book universe – one where time travel, alternate worlds and even actual ghosts can represent a way to face the past or find new perspective.
Was that a conscious theme you wanted to deal with throughout your work, and what did you find were the biggest challenges in combining more fantastic elements with human conflict?
Brennert: Interestingly, a lot of these ideas were first used in parallel world stories. Had I tried to introduce them in the mainstream Batman titles, who knows, maybe someone at DC would’ve said, “Ahh, I don’t think Batman should have permanent wounds on his back,” and nixed it.
Instead the concepts were sort of Beta-tested on Earth-Two, and eventually wound up part of the mainstream continuity.
Those fantasy elements, especially parallel worlds, were already an integral part of the DC Universe, so it wasn’t like I had to set up the premise from scratch, it was there and ready to be used by anyone. I was always a bit surprised that more writers didn’t make use of the Multiverse to explore not just the Earth-Two characters, but the effects a Multiverse had on Earth-One characters: Paul Levitz, Gerry Conway, and Mike Barr come to mind, but not many others.
These were the kind of stories I as a reader wanted to see, so I had to write them myself!
I also grew up on Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone, which often used fantasy as a metaphor—as I did when I worked on the 1980s Twilight Zone, and in novels like Kindred Spirits and Time and Chance. So that counterbalancing of reality and fantasy was something that was baked into me from an early age, a juxtaposition that I enjoyed playing with.
Nrama: In the Hawk and Dove and Creeper stories, you both revive and subvert Steve Ditko's late-'60s concepts, and use them to explore the changing times. What made you want to use those characters, and what was your perspective on them and on the underpinnings of Ditko's work?
Brennert: I love and respect Steve Ditko’s work, especially his Charlton characters and the ones he created for Dick Giordano at DC — The Creeper and Hawk and Dove. In a way I was trying to recreate that Charlton experience for myself, working with Dick and Jim Aparo on two Ditko creations.
In the case of Hawk and Dove, by 1981 those characters were long forgotten and I thought it would be nice to give them a final (and out-of-continuity, since I aged them out of synch with the rest of the DC Universe) adventure that wrapped up their emotional arc.
They always tended to be rather extreme archetypes of pacifist and aggressor, so I amplified that and in the end had them realize that neither of their viewpoints were complete. Batman served as the mediator between Hank and Don just as their father, the judge, used to do in the original series — so I don’t see that as a subversion of the characters, just an extension of what Ditko and his collaborators were doing in 1969.
As for the Creeper, what I was hoping to do was bring the character back to his roots as a newscaster/vigilante in the tradition of Ditko’s The Question, a character I also loved. Had I been writing The Question, I would have retained the character’s libertarian viewpoint because that’s an essential part of what makes him so great (I loved that story where he refuses to save — quite realistically, to me — two thugs who a moment ago were trying to kill him). Jack Ryder never had any set political leanings, so I felt freer to give him a more liberal voice.
I also had in mind a Superman/Creeper team-up for DC Comics Presents that would have had them meet at a network affiliates convention (their alter egos both being TV reporters) but I never pitched it to Julie Schwartz.
Nrama: There were also some unique looks at Earth-2 -- creating a long, tragic history for Batman and his family, doing a sort of alternate future-as-present. What was intriguing to you about the Earth-2 concept, and given that the Multiverse has been destroyed and come back what feels like a few times now, what do you feel are the unique advantages and disadvantages to that concept? The Deadman you did for the holiday special has a wry, poignant take on the Post-Crisis concept I'm surprised got by the editors at that time.
Brennert: I talk about this at more length in my introduction to the book, but in a nutshell there’s simply more opportunities for drama in parallel world stories. Not just the greater freedom in writing characters whose lives have to remain basically the same because of merchandising, but the interaction of Earth-One characters with their counterparts.
Part of the thrill in “Flash of Two Worlds” was watching Barry Allen meet his childhood hero, who he’d thought was only a comic book character. There are so many possibilities for them to glimpse roads not taken or a grim future — to feel their own mortality in a world where their doppelganger has died, as Batman does in “Interlude on Earth-Two.”
The fact that DC has brought back the Multiverse (albeit Jenny Craiged down to a slim 52 worlds) and that it’s now being used so effectively on television in The Flash only validates my belief that the Multiverse only enriched, and never confused, the DC Universe.
Nrama: Holy Terror is a bit unique in that it was the first "Branded" Elseworlds title. I’m curious as to how that book came about and what you thought of how far the Elseworlds concept went.
Brennert: Mark Waid, then an editor at DC, mentioned to me that Gotham by Gaslight had done so well that DC was looking to do more like it. At first we discussed the idea of Batman in a futuristic dystopia, but it morphed into an alternate history.
When Denny O’Neil took over the project, he offered it to Neal Adams to draw, but I think it was a little too out there for Neal and Denny asked me what I thought of Norm Breyfogle. I told him I loved Norm’s work—his run on Batman was being inked by my pal Steve Mitchell, who also helped me with some early conceptual advice on Holy Terror — and in the end I think he did a better job than even Neal could have done.
My favorite Elseworlds story — my own included — is Mark Waid’s own Kingdom Come, hands down one of the best graphic novels DC’s ever published (I rank it up there with Watchmen). But I also enjoyed James Robinson’s The Golden Age, as well as Superman: Red Son and the hilarious Superman/Batman: World’s Funnest, in which the old Multiverse returned without fanfare only to be destroyed repeatedly by Bat-Mite and Mr. Mxyzptlk.
I also have a soft spot for John Byrne’s Superman/Batman: Generations series, which came closest to the Silver Age Mort Weisinger “imaginary stories” I loved as a kid.
Nrama: What was it like working in television versus working in comics?
Brennert: I definitely had less interference and greater freedom in comics. In fact that was one of the reasons I wrote them, because they were a welcome relief from the network and studio “notes” that are an inevitable part of television production.
Instead of writing multiple story outlines, all I had to do was call Dick Giordano and say, “I’d like to do Batman and the Earth-Two Robin,” and he’d say fine, go ahead and write it. And if he had notes they were always good ones that I was happy to implement.
Nrama: I'm sure our readers might enjoy a few anecdotes from some of the genre shows you worked on – the Wonder Woman episode, Buck Rogers, Twilight Zone, etc.
Brennert: I wrote for three comics-inspired TV series — Wonder Woman, Buck Rogers, and a brief stint on Lois & Clark — and aside from the pleasure of working with Bruce Lansbury and Anne Collins on the first two, the actual end product was rarely anything I was enthusiastic about.
I was always pushing for more emotional, character-driven stories and greater use of the comics mythology — pretty much what’s being done today on series like Supergirl, The Flash, Daredevil, et al. But back in the day the networks, studios, and maybe even the audience wasn’t ready for more sophisticated treatment of superheroes, and I often cringed at what got on the air.
I had much more success with straight science fiction/fantasy series like The Twilight Zone and the revived Outer Limits,on both of which I was able to write (and on TZ, produce) the kind of stories I really wanted to tell.
My greatest success in TV, of course, was on L.A. Law, for which I won an Emmy. But it was Twilight Zone — and an earlier anthology series I wrote for, Darkroom — that first put me on the map as a television writer.
Nrama: And this is more of a personal curiosity, but working on L.A. Law at its peak with David E. Kelley had to be an experience -- I'm particularly curious about "Good to the Last Drop" with Rosalind Shays' abrupt departure, and how that came out. (Newsarama Note: Said departure, picked as one of TV Guide’s 100 Most Memorable Moments in Television, is embedded below)
Brennert: Ah yes, “Good to the Last Drop.” Patricia Green and I were writing that episode with David Kelley — we would each take a different storyline and David would combine them later — and in one meeting David told us, a little sheepishly, “I’m thinking about dropping Rosalind down an elevator shaft.”
We both looked at him with Springtime for Hitler looks on our faces and Pat went so far as to say, “David, go lie down until the feeling passes.” A few days later I was in David’s office going over something with him when he said, “I’ve decided to drop her down the elevator shaft. It’s just too sick and black not to do.”
And that was the joy of working for a genius like David: you never knew what the hell was going to come out of that fertile, twisted mind of his.
Nrama: What's been the best part of knowing this collection is coming out?
Brennert: Well, let’s face it, I’ve hardly been a prolific writer of comics; this volume collects a total of nine stories written between 1981 and 2000. So to have those nine stories still remembered fondly, and judged worthy of being collected, is flattering enough.
But to be one of four writers so far in the Tales of the Batman series — the others being Denny O’Neil, Len Wein, and Archie Goodwin, all of whom had long and distinguished runs on Batman — really is an honor.
Nrama: What are some things you're currently working on?
Brennert: I’m at work on a new historical novel set in Hawai'i, in the vein of my previous books Moloka'i and Honolulu.
Nrama: If given the chance, would you like to do more stories in the DC Universe, either in comics or other media, such as some of the current shows based on the characters?
Brennert: I’d love to write an episode of Supergirl because I love the show. Greg Berlanti and his writers have really captured the spirit of what makes Kara Zor-El Supergirl, while reimagining her mythology for a contemporary audience.
And as for comics work, although I haven’t been following DC continuity that closely, as long as there’s a Multiverse, there’s probably some story I could enjoy telling.