When Jim Lee lived in Italy, he met some of the best comic book artists and writers in Europe, who lived in some of the oldest and most beautiful cities in the world.
It wasn't long until Lee was formulating a plan that involved them all.
"Jim called me," said writer Brian Azzarello, "and he said, 'Listen, I want to do a project with some European artists, with Batman going to different cities around Europe.'
"I said, 'That sounds like fun. Hope you enjoy yourself.' And he said, 'Oh yeah. And you're going to write it,'" Azzarello laughed.
What resulted was Batman: Europa, a comic that was announced six years ago, but finally begins this week with an issue by co-writers Azzarello and Matteo Casali of Italy, featuring art by Lee. Subsequent issues of the four-part story are drawn by Giuseppe Camuncoli, Diego Latorre and Jock.
"I was interested in working with these people, and this was the first time I had ever worked with another writer, too," Azzarello said of his experience working on Batman: Europa. "Matteo Casali lived over in Italy when Jim was there, and they became friends. So he got involved in the project. It was one of those things where it just sounded like fun, where there wasn't a lot of work involved for the payoff of having these guys all working together."
Azzarello and Casali may have been working from different continents, but the use of phone calls and open collaboration meant they didn't have the disconnect that long distances would seem to create.
"Sometimes we had too much connect, actually," Azzarello laughed. "It was interesting working with another writer. It was a great experience."
The story centers on Batman racing across Europe to find a cure to a mystery virus. And not only is Batman himself infected, but Joker is too. And the two enemies have to work together.
"They're both infected by this virus, and they'll both die if they don't solve this mystery that takes them to these cities," Azzarello explained. "Both their lives depend on it.
"So for Batman, it's either work with the Joker or die," he said. "Or conversely, if you don't work with him, he's going to die."
The setting for the issues changes, as the characters begin in Gotham City, then visit cities like Paris, Berlin, Prague and Rome. Each of the settings serves as more than a backdrop, as the characters respond to their surroundings in unique ways."I think one of things about Batman that is so important for that character, at least in the really good Batman stories, is that Gotham is part of the story. Gotham is a character, you know? And he's so connected to that city because he's vowed to clean it up. So it's a character that constantly disappoints him, which is just fantastic, you know?
"To be able to find some elements of Gotham in some of these other cities was fun to work on," Azzarello said, adding that he's visited Europe frequently. "Every one of those cities has a bit of Gotham City in them, but there's a different feeling for each of them."
But was it a challenge to demonstrate the uniqueness of each setting, and how Batman and Joker fit in there?
"Yeah, but that wasn't the biggest challenge," Azzarello said. "The biggest challenge was writing a straight-ahead, superhero, adventure story. That was my biggest challenge.
"And how do I make it a little bit less of a challenge? He partners up with Joker," he said with a laugh.
Azzarello said that, because of the collaborative process in co-writing with Casali, he's not sure who came up with the idea of the Batman/Joker team-up. "It was a long time ago, but I think it was mine," he said. "It just sounds like one of mine."
Once the writers decided to place Joker and Batman in European cities together, the story started falling into place, with some cities being ideal locations for great scenes. "Paris was actually one of those settings that ended up being perfect for [the Joker]," Azzarello said. "That's where some of Joker's best moments in the story take place. Paris is wild, it's decadent... it's so many things. It's contradictory, like the Joker himself."
Azzarello said he changed up his style a little because Batman: Europa is a painted project. "I made sure we had lots of nice architecture for these guys to work with, drawing these characters in different venues. Because it's painted, you really have to limit your panels. Painted talking heads is just boring," he said.
The writer was thrilled to get the chance to work with European artists whose work he admires. While he'd worked before with Lee and Camuncoli, it was his first time collaborating with the others.
"Of course, I know Jock," he added. "But we haven't had a chance to work together before this. We always talk about it when we see each other. We finally pulled it off."Azzarello said the comic took six years to complete because of all the painted artwork and the coordination across continents. "It was just the logistics of things," he said. "It was getting everybody that we wanted to work on this thing ready to go at once."
But the result, he said, is a "beautiful" comic.
"I think people are really going to dig this story," Azzarello said. "The issues are 40 pages each. So it's big. And it's beautiful. And it's Batman. And it's Joker, wearing a Robin costume."