Mixing the structure of Kabuki theater with a Bruce Lee-style battle in Tokyo, writers Jackson Lanzing and Collin Kelly are exploring the relationship between Damian Wayne and Dick Grayson in an unusual way with this week's Nightwing #42.
Working with artist Jorge Corona of I Am Robin fame, the writers tell a story titled "The Crimson Kabuki" that takes this one-off guest issue and turns its into an innovative exploration of character that combines theater, martial arts, and comic book story structure.
Nightwing #42 is one of two issues released this week by Kelly and Lanzing, with Green Arrow #39 starting a two-issue story in that title. The two writers, who first started working together as screenwriters, are coming off a year-long run on Gotham City Garage to write some fill-in issues before DC changes direction this summer on a few of its key titles (including Nightwing, as writer Benjamin Percy takes over writing duties in May).
Newsarama talked with Lanzing and Kelly to find out more about their unusual approach to the fight scene in Nightwing #42, why it worked so well to put Damian in a tower that Nightwing has to ascend, and where readers can see the two writers' work next.
Newsarama: Jackson and Collin, there are two things about this week's issue that are interesting to note. One is the utilization of Dick's relationship with Damian, and the other is the idea of the two characters fighting in Japan. Is this as cool as it sounds?
Jackson Lanzing: It is even cooler. I'm willing to say this book is cooler than it even sounds, because once you get into it, I think there's some incredible work done by Jorge Corona, the artist, that is just going to blow a lot of people away.
If you aren't familiar with his work from We Are Robin or Feathers, he's just one of those guys who is always leveling up with every issue he does, and we got very lucky to work with him during a period where he was really blossoming into a superhero artist.
It's a hell of an issue.
Kelly: To your point though, it's been exciting putting together Dick and Damian again, and getting to angle something toward their friendship, their family-hood, as a motivating factor.
And as you said, Tokyo really is a great place to see Nightwing, with the gloss and neon light of that city. We feel like it really fits his personality well.
Nrama: What's the adversary in this issue?
Kelly: The adversary is the Crimson Kabuki, a Yakuza-style organization. They're a group of tattooed and suited Japanese toughs who wear a kind of iconic red mask, not unlike a certain other member of the Bat-family. But what they're facing off against is this home-grown Japanese crime organization.
Nrama: And they took Damian somehow?
Lanzing: Yes, the idea is that the Crimson Kabuki has taken Damian and Dick has to get him.
Nrama: Why the word "Kabuki"?
Kelly: We were inspired by the Bruce Lee film Game of Death. So we wanted to tell a story about a tower where, on each level, there's a new kind of warrior for Dick to face off against.
And it's all framed around the central motif of the Kabuki.
Nrama: Ah, so the word "Kabuki" actually does mean something.
Kelly: We can't just throw these terms around without actually understanding them and utilizing them to the full effect!
So Jackson and I did a bunch of research into the actual structure and themes and motifs of Kabuki theater, and we wove that into the story structure itself.
Lanzing: Amazingly, a comic book actually fits to a Kabuki play structure very well. Kabuki theater operates in three acts, but it doesn't operate the same way an American three-act structure works, or the traditional Western canon three-act structure works.
So this was an opportunity for us to write outside of the traditional structure and bring something we thought was unique to the experience of reading a one-off issue.
You know you're only stepping into this things for 20 pages, and you want to get the most story out of it.
We thought, what a great opportunity to embrace structure rather than looking at it as the enemy and thinking, oh, I only have so many pages for this beat or so many pages for that beat. Instead we're really looking at, OK, once we lay down the structure on these 20 pages, how then can we bring the audience along that structure in the most exciting way?
It was really refreshing. It made for a very unique issue. You won't really read anything quite like this out of DC or Marvel this year, I guarantee it.
Nrama: Wow, I get the feeling you weren't exaggerating. This really does seem like it will be cooler than I thought.
Lanzing: We're not ones for exaggeration!
Nrama: I believe it!
Kelly: And we don't want to bang the drum too loudly, but we can say that this issue canonically introduces a new member of the Bat-family who is perhaps the most dangerous and deadly of them yet.
Lanzing: So all that stuff I just said about how we don't exaggerate? Collin just wiped that all away.
But he's not wrong. The Bat-family is about to get a new member.
Also, for what it's worth, because this issue is about the relationship between Dick and Damian, and because Dick has to get him out of this tower, one of the things it allowed us to do is tell a story that shows the way that Damian views Dick.
I think there's often a lot of questions about that relationship, the degree to which Damian holds Dick in esteem versus the way that Damian holds Dick in esteem. I think they are brothers, but there's almost a surrogate father element there from Damian's time as Dick's Robin. There's so much complexity there.
So we thought, what a great opportunity... to make Damian a sort of princess in a tower and make Dick the rescuing superhero. It gave us a really exciting way to review their relationship. It's probably not Damian's favorite way to view the relationship, but that's where they're at.
Nrama: We recently talked about the two-issue story you two are co-writing in Green Arrow. Is there anything else you want to tell fans that you're doing?
Lanzing: If you haven't checked out Gotham City Garage, the digital-first sort of Elseworlds story from DC, we just got done with that. Issue #12 dropped just last week, I believe. That is going to be collected in a couple months, so people should look out for Gotham City Garage if you like Nightwing, if you like Green Arrow -they're both there in story, led primarily by the heroines of the DC universe like Supergirl, Catwoman, and Big Barda. They all appear and are the driving force behind the story.
And then we have an original book over at Vault Comics called Zojaqan that is coming out monthly now and will be collected in a trade in June. That's five issues, one big story, with art by the incredible Nathan Gooden. We couldn't be prouder of that book.
Kelly: And also Tomb Raider: Inferno, out on shelves very soon! Which everyone should check out.