When Scott Snyder launched All-Star Batman as part of DC's "Rebirth" initiative, the writer intended the back-up stories to depict the training of Duke Thomas, the latest protégé of the Dark Knight.
What readers probably didn't expect was that "The Cursed Wheel," the title of the initial back-up arc with artist Declan Shalvey and colorist Jordie Bellaire, would be the type of story that would not only add surprising new revelations to Batman's past continuity, but would deal as much with Duke's mental prowess as his physical abilities.
Although the main story in All-Star Batman, which Snyder's creating with John Romita Jr., has what even Snyder calls "over-the-top" action, the "Cursed Wheel" story focuses on a training method that Batman says has been applied to all of his young allies (and even one of his villains).
In anticipation of this week's All-Star Batman #4, Newsarama talked to Snyder and Shalvey about the back-up stories, the visual interpretation of Snyder's "wheel" concept, and what's in store for readers of this week's story.
Newsarama: This back-up story has really taken a different approach to the training of Batman's protégé, using the idea of the wheel and these different colors. Declan, did this story stretch you in ways that you hadn't been stretched before?
Declan Shalvey: I'm trying to come up with a funny answer, but no, I've read all of Scott's work on Batman and I'm a big fan of Scott's work. So it's not that I expected it to be not good, but my fear is always that something this big, is it going to be something that's just, like, a generic superhero story? Is it going to be something that's just going to toe the line?
But knowing Scott and his work, he's always going to try something different. And this story is very different - it's bold, it has its own identity as a book as opposed to the prior Batman book with Greg Capullo.
So I knew I was going to be challenged, but for me, I was more challenged by the thoughts about, you know, how am I going to draw Batman? All these artists have drawn Batman. What the hell am I going to do? You know?
But once I got into the story, there was just this really, interesting story for Duke and I really liked the challenge I found in every chapter of this overall story. Each one had a splash page, lots of plot, heavy panels of narration and of dialogue and character work. And there would be a page where I'd have to do something really, really different that I have before.
I think when we talked before, we spoke about the mosaic page.
Nrama: Yes, that was something very unique.
Shalvey: I think that was probably one of the best pages I've ever drawn — not because I think it came out so amazing or something, but because of the challenge. What happens when I work with Warren [Ellis] sometimes is he asks for something and my reaction is, "How the hell am I going to draw this?" And as impossible as those moments are, it's what makes me do my better work. It really forces me out of my comfort zone. It makes me try to re-approach it. And that [mosaic] page took nearly as long as the rest of the story to draw, but it was worth it. You know? I feel so proud of it.
I feel like I got to do something that's not only cool, but also is more interesting and compelling and experimental. I feel like we were giving fans what they want and something that they don't want, and I think that's the best thing to do with stories like this.
Nrama: Scott, the color on the wheel that this story has been exploring is black, correct?
Scott Snyder: Yes, that's right.
Nrama: Can you explain the different colors on the wheel? Or do we have to wait for that? Or can you explain black in particular?
Snyder: Oh sure. For me, I wanted to start by throwing Duke into one of the toughest sections of his training. So what black represents is seeing past the shadows and the darkness of a crime to the human motivation. It's being a good detective and being able to unravel the arithmetic of something really horrific so that you can go back to say this is the chain of events that led it to happen, even when it seems senseless.
In some ways, in this story, Batman believes that having Duke's parents in the house is a distraction, because by being infected with Joker toxin, Batman sees them as purely black. As being completely overtaken with evil that has no motivation. And so he sees this as kind of an obstacle for Duke that's almost insurmountable in the story, or at least a tremendous distraction or a handicap for him.
But Duke, in this issue, says no, I'm going to look through all the ugliness that happened in this case, with Zsasz, and find the core motivation and be able to solve it and make sure it doesn't happen again.
And at the end, I think the real kicker is that he's even able to see the strength and the goodness and the motivation behind what his parents are saying to him.
To me, in a lot of ways, his story is almost darker than Bruce's as a kid. I mean, his origin story here is that his parents are not just kind of killed by a villain, but are transformed into these horrible totems whereby they say all the worst things in the world to him. So it's almost worse than if they were gone.
And in that way, to be able to see that as a source of strength, and to see the inversion of that, where they say these terrible things because they love me, and the stuff that they've been infected with by the Joker isn't just evil and blackness, it has its own motivation, is the biggest kind of accomplishment or passing of the test possible in this arc.
So that's what it was.
And then next issue we do white, with Mr. Freeze. And it's about endurance in the face of tremendous challenge. And then green, then red, and all these different parts of the wheel.
But black was the biggest and toughest, I think, first.
Shalvey: I don't know if anybody noticed - I doubt anybody noticed - but generally, I use white panel borders in my work, but for this story, I switched to black.
Nrama: Declan, did this story surprise you in that you weren't drawing a lot of big action scenes, but were instead often required to capture the emotion behind dialogue? Because, as we talked about last time, much of the big action in All-Star Batman has been in the main story.
Shalvey: Yeah, I mean, I'll draw the hell out of an action scene. I love doing that stuff. But getting down to really trying to capture an emotional moment is really tough. That type of stuff is less flashy. You tend to get less attention for that stuff, but as a reader, you need to feel the emotion in scenes like that. When Scott's dialogue has a line that's supposed to punch you, you've got to draw it a certain way, otherwise it comes across wrong.
That was definitely one of the challenges of this story, the deliberate restraint. I did get some bombastic moments, but that had to be balanced with the emotional scenes. To me, that's more about mood and composition. A lot of my work is about kind of moving you through the page in a certain way.
Nrama: Scott, I don't know if you were able to, but did you think about what artist would be good for which color? And if so, why Declan for black?
Snyder: Yeah, very much. I mean, for me, I think the reason — to be perfectly frank — the reason I started with Dec and Jordie here is because I felt that on the level of emotion that Duke would have to go through, I thought Dec's art is so evocative and so focused on emotion, both in terms of the acting but also just in terms of the tonal sort of expressiveness of it, that he'd be perfect for that.
And then obviously, Jordie is the best in the business, in terms of bringing that element of making color both emotional and atmospheric. But also using it in ways that punctuate the story for thematic or metaphorical reasons.
So this, to me, wasn't just the black section; it was the section that establishes kind of the thesis of this part of the story. So I knew they'd be great for it for all kinds of reasons in that regard. They certainly exceeded all my expectations and made me a much better writer for it.
And then you know, the next section is white with Francesco Francavilla, and I was joking with him - the thing is, this series really is about working with people that inspire me and that you might not have seen work on Batman books, at least not in the capacity that they're working on them here. So some of them are old friends, like Francesco and Jock and others. Dec is an old friend too, but we haven't had a chance to work together yet. And others are newer.
But the idea is to be able to work with people that I think inspire me, but also have a connection with the story we're doing.
So the colors are fun. So Francesco, he was joking with me, he's like, white? So I get to do a lot of snow, right? He's like, a lot less work! Like, a lot of white pages.
I was like, no, no, no, no. It's not going to be like that.
But more importantly, like, you talk about the character you're using. Zsasz. You talk about the story, here with Duke. And then you find your connection emotionally with the people you're working with. And in that way, you create something that has less to do with the specificity of the color and more to do with the challenges of the story itself and the opportunities of the story itself.