If there's one writer in the Batman universe that can explore the dark depths of a villainous mind, it's David Hine. And in August's Batman and Robin #26, Hine is using an "experimental" style as he takes Dick and Damian into a new kind of crazy.
During his run last year on Detective Comics and various tie-in mini-series, Hine took readers into the halls of Arkham Asylum and the demented mind of Jeremiah Arkham. Hine then followed that in December with two Detective and Batman Annuals that introduced the French version of Arkham Asylum – Le Jardin Noir.
In Batman and Robin #26, Hine teams with artist Greg Tocchini to revisit Le Jardin Noir, this time in a series of stories that Hine calls "sketches" that fill the one-shot. In the story, someone has freed the lunatics from Le Jardin Noir, and as Chris Burnham's surreal cover indicates, Batman and Robin are challenged by the "living nightmare" the escapees create in Paris.
Introducing twisted new characters and strange places to readers has become a bit of a specialty for Hine. He began writing for DC three years ago after establishing his stories of bizarre mutants and Inhumans while writing Marvel comics like District X and Son of M. Even before that, in his debut independent comic — the psychologically twisted yet critically acclaimed Strange Embrace — Hine proved that he was particularly skilled at portraying the disturbing side of human nature.
It turns out this specialty isn't exactly an accident, as he revealed in the interview below. Not only does the writer enjoy these kind of stories, but he has worked among the mentally ill, giving him insight into the setting in which he places his characters.
Newsarama talked with Hine to find out about the "sketches" he's writing in Batman and Robin #26 — and why he's so interested in the more twisted side of the Bat-universe.
Newsarama: David, you've obviously got a real affinity for stories about villains and insane asylums. Does that worry you? Or is this just what interests and delights you as a writer?
David Hine: I’m past worrying. I’m drawn to these kind of stories and I have to accept that. I just don’t do light and cheery.
I do take mental illness very seriously. I’ve worked in a mental hospital and seen the tragedy of unbalanced minds. I was working in my holidays when I was a student, cleaning and feeding patients, not as medical staff. But even while I was working there I found myself enthralled by the stories that the patients had to tell. Their stories were unbearably sad and almost always imbued with a kind of black humor that I think rubbed off on me. The woman in her seventies who told me she was a ballerina and proved it by deftly kicking me in the head. The woman with no stomach who refused to eat but would steal food from everyone else’s plate the minute my back was turned. Old Tommy who walked around with an alarm clock around his neck and half a dozen wrist watches, but for whom the time was always “ ’Alf past ten.” And one poor guy who told me that forty years ago his parents told him they were taking him for a drive in the country. They left him at the hospital and he never saw them again.
What struck me most forcefully was that many of the patients were there voluntarily, unhappy in the hospital but utterly incapable of dealing with the outside world.
None of these people were criminals, of course, and you’ll notice that many of the characters I’ve created, although nominally villains are not really wicked or even strictly villains at all. I have a tendency to see the best in the bad guys and the worst in the heroes. It’s all about the gray areas.
Nrama: What can you tell us about this story's premise?
Hine: The story that ran in the last Batman and Detective Annuals introduced the French version of Arkham Asylum – Le Jardin Noir, or The Black Garden. In this story a mysterious character, who resembles the Son of Man from Magritte’s paintings, frees a selection of the inmates and starts to turn Paris into a surrealist’s theme park. The escapees are all metahumans with unusual abilities to warp reality and our perception of reality. I won’t go into too much detail about the ‘Son of Man’ character or his motivations because that’s very much the key to the story. Batman, Robin and Nightrunner will have to get to the bottom of who he is and why he’s turning Paris into his personalized art gallery before the body count goes ballistic.
Nrama: Why did France interest you in particular? Do you have ties to the country?
Hine: I live in a bi-cultural household. My partner is French and my son goes to the French Lycee in London, so French is spoken as much as English, and we watch a lot of French movies, read a lot of French books and comics. I lived for six months in Paris when I was younger and have spent a lot of time in France over the years.
I love French culture. It’s the home of Surrealism and was a major center for Dada events. It’s also the country where the minister of culture declared bandes dessinées to be the 9th Art, and where American B movies were transformed into nouvelle vague cinema. In other words, a country that blurs the distinctions between low and high art.
It was the obvious setting for this story, particularly as it ended up being more experimental than I first intended.
Nrama: It's just a one-issue story?
Hine: Yes. It was originally pitched as a mini-series, then a three-part arc, but has ended up as a 20-page short story. That’s not a lot of space to introduce a whole new set of characters and also give face time to three lead heroes. So I adopted the approach of delivering a series of "sketches." The story is subtitled, "Scenes from a Work in Progress." It should work fine as a short story, but it only skims the surface of the concept of the Asylum and its inmates.
Nrama: Le Jardin Noir is described as France's equivalent to Arkham Asylum. But how is it different?
Hine: Gotham’s Arkham Asylum is a prison. Le Jardin Noir is more of a traditional asylum. When I wrote my Arkham books I showed Jeremiah Arkham trying to evolve the asylum into this kind of institution, where the insane are given shelter and support, rather than just incarceration. Jeremiah turned out to be as insane as the inmates, so that didn’t really work out, but I would like to explore the idea more with Le Jardin Noir, to examine whether the inmates perceptions are as valid as those of the "sane."
Nrama: How has it been writing Dick and Damian with this backdrop? Are they a little more out of their element than they are in Gotham?
Hine: Initially, yes. They’re dropped into an unfamiliar environment that has been further transformed into a nightmare scene, where bodies melt and transform and people behave like beasts.
Dick has to bring his analytical resources to bear to see past the surface appearances and also to find a motivation for the mayhem. The meaning is in the motive.
Damian’s precociousness means that he isn’t the slightest bit intimidated and he dives in with his usual disregard for caution, with potentially disastrous consequences.
My tongue is firmly in my cheek for the duration of this story and in order to condense it down to those 20 pages, I adopted the style of a certain well-known writer that I’ve long admired. It’s not too hard to guess who that is, but there are more clues in the story.
Nrama: Who are some of the characters we'll meet in this story, and how will they challenge Batman and Robin?
Hine: Sister Crystal has a kind of Midas touch that turns organic material to glass. Her lover, The Id, has the ability to release uncontrolled desires that overcome civilized behavior. Skin Talker has a rare skin disease where writing appears spontaneously on his flesh, the text of which appears to foretell the future for selected individuals. Ray Man has the ability to distort reality to his own designs. Batman and Robin start out trying to save the citizens of Paris from these weird characters but very soon find themselves falling victim to their metahuman powers, and they soon find themselves fighting just to survive.
I hasten to add that while Robin may indeed be turned to glass, Batman doesn’t actually get his eye pierced by the Eiffel Tower as depicted in Chris Burnham’s cover. That’s purely symbolic, and although Chris denied it, I’m convinced he was just trying to depict the worst visual pun of all time.
Nrama: The cover is unique for a Batman comic. But with all these characters you've described, it's not surprising at all to hear about them. This isn't your first time inventing strange characters for Batman's world. Is there a certain approach you take when creating crazy characters for the Batman universe? Are there parameters? Or is the sky the limit?
Hine: I subscribe to the idea that anything goes in comics. I loved the craziness of the '60s DC comics when you could have stories like "Rainbow Batman" or have Lois Lane spend an entire issue of her comic trying to hide her colossally expanded head in "Lois Lane’s Super Brain." That kind of thing is no longer appropriate for most of the DC titles, which are pretty much grounded in a "realistic" setting. But with so many monthly Bat-titles, I think it’s nice to have one where you can go a little crazy. Batman and Robin seems to have become that title.
Nrama: What does Greg Tocchini bring to the story?
Hine: We’re months away from publication and I haven’t seen any of Greg’s art for this issue yet, but I was very pleased to hear he was drawing it. I was absolutely knocked out by Greg’s art for the Radical book, The Last Days of American Crime. That was my first exposure to his work, and I was hugely impressed by the originality of style, the sensuousness of the line and the cinematic quality of the storytelling. I think Greg’s on the fast-track to A-list status. I’m really excited to see how he handles the challenges of this story.
Nrama: Is there anything else you want to tell fans about the issue?
Hine: If you think Le Jardin Noir is a cool concept and you like the characters in this story, make some noise.
Nrama: Will we see more from you in the Batman universe after this?
Hine: Hopefully more from Le Jardin Noir and the man currently known as The Son of Man. It depends whether people like this issue or if it bombs. I guess it could go either way.