Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle Retro-active: a vintage interview with the star Batman creative team DC Comics has brought back for Batman Retroactive
A lot is riding on DC Comics efforts to reconnect with Batman fans they have alienated over the last 10 years. The Dark Knight Rises presents an opportunity that cannot be ignored, and fans have said repeatedly that they simply don’t trust the writers and editors responsible for the story arcs that drove them away. What better solution than to bring back the team who took such splendid advantage of the Batman mania created by the Tim Burton blockbuster in 1989? Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle have been brought back for the third in an epic look back: Retroactive. The series began with Batman Retroactive of the 70s in July, the 80s in August, and now, at last, the return of Grant and Breyfogle in Batman of the 90s.
This telling interview is from 2007, as Breyfogle and Grant look back on their time on the Detective Comics and Batman titles, long before there was any glimpse of this project.
NORM BREYFOGLE AND ALAN GRANT SPEAK OUT
The 1980s were very good to Batman in general. A number of highly talented artists and writers all worked on the title, one of DC’s flagships. Towards the end of the ‘80s Batmania exploded with the release of Tim Burton’s first Batman movie, the self titled gothic blockbuster starring Jack Nicholson and Michael Keaton. The success of the movie helped establish the comic book as one of the most read of the decade.
The array of talent that appeared in the book is staggering by any stretch of the imagination. Gene Colan, Don Newton, Walter Simonson, Michael Golden, Michael Netzer and Jim Aparo had all drawn Batman, Batman Family or Detective Comics before the explosion that followed Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and the Alan Moore/Brian Bolland one-shot, The Killing Joke. After those two projects and Miller’s Year One (drawn in superb style by David Mazzuchelli) series the books saw an even more amazing line-up for detective Comics resulting in Mike W Barr teaming up with the (relatively) new English art team of Alan Davis and Paul Neary. After that team left the book Todd McFarlane––later to find fame and fortune at both Marvel and Image (Spawn)––took over for a three issue run. Then a number of artists and writers travelled through until stability was found with the pairing of two men, initially three.
When DC asked noted English writer John Wagner and his writing partner Alan Grant to write the title they accepted expecting fortune to follow. When the royalties didn’t eventuate Wagner left, allowing Grant to retain his by-line. Both Grant and Wagner had learnt their craft in England on the seminal 2000AD comic book and Grant brought with him concepts that he’d previously explored and touched upon. Paired with Grant was one of the best of the ‘young turks’ in DC’s art stable: Norm Breyfogle. Breyfogle was self taught and had come up through the ranks at independent companies such as First Comics before landing a job as one of the artists through the revolving door at DC. In order to garner some stability DC settled on the team of Grant and Breyfogle on Detective and allowed them free reign to create as they saw fit. The result was one of the best runs by a creative team on a book at any point in comic book history.
Breyfogle’s expressionistic artwork was more than a compliment to Grant’s challenging scripts. For five years they confronted both readers and editors alike and instead of falling back to the standard stories and characters the duo set about creating their own concepts and characters. In Grant’s case this was more out of necessity as he admits he didn’t have a wide range of knowledge of the history of Batman, unlike Breyfogle. Together the pair introduced several new characters, Anarky, Scarface, The Ventriloquist, The Fear, and the all purpose good guy, Harold, along with producing the issue of Batman that introduced Tim Drake as Robin in his all-new costume. Decades before Frank Miller announced that he would be sending Batman on a search for Osama Bin Laden, Grant and Breyfogle landed Batman in the United Kingdom to tackle terrorists. Decades before Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee would have Clayface pretending to be the late Robin re-incarnated, Grant and Breyfogle covered it. Indeed a lot of the concepts that exist in the Batman titles today can be traced back to the Grant/Breyfogle run.
Recently Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle sat down and spoke about their five years working on Batman, a conversation that also brought up quite a few other topics.
NORM BREYFOGLE: I sent Alan a big amount of little instances of what I’d like to see (for a future Batman project), but I’ll leave it all up to Alan of course. It might be all new stuff. Whether or not Anarky will be in there, well who knows? Only Alan knows at this point. Do you know, Alan?
ALAN GRANT: No, I don’t know. I’ve been thinking about the guy and wondering how he would have turned out. I read over some of the previous Anarky stuff that we did – or rather that I did, what I was made to do – and [laughter] I don’t know if you ever read this but during the Cataclysm story line, when Gotham was devastated by an earthquake, for reasons which I could not make rational or logical in the story, Batman sought out Anarky and told him he had to leave the city or Batman would come down on him like two ton of concrete. It didn’t make sense. You’d think if Gotham was in pieces then Batman would want all the help he could get. But he threw Anarky out of the city and just disappeared for months.
NB: I actually drew that scene in an issue of Anarky I believe. You probably wrote it into a number of titles, though.
AG: Right, yeah. Reading over that I was not so happy with the way I’d written that because it didn’t make sense to me at the time and it doesn’t make sense now. That’s what happens when you let editorial assistants come up with story ideas rather than the guy who’s getting paid to do the writing.
NB: That’s an extension of what happens when you create a character that’s close to your heart and let someone else own it.
AG: [chuckles] Yeah, that’s true. [laughter] If you create something that’s close to your heart and you don’t own it, “Oh woe is me!” [laughter]
DANIEL BEST: Let’s go right back to the beginning. Norm, you did at least one or two issues of Detective before Alan came along and Alan, you started writing it with John Wagner.
AG: John and I were working on Judge Dredd one day when we got a call from Denny O’Neil. Denny was saying that basically Detective Comics was selling below its break even point, they were making a loss on it as opposed to a profit, and there was talk of closing it down unless he could turn it around. He had the bright idea of giving it to a couple of Brits and seeing if we could come up with different stuff. He basically gave us a two issue trial and that’s when we used the Ventriloquist, which we had actually created for another story in 2000AD, but we used it in Batman instead. Denny liked the two issues and signed us up for a year. At that time you didn’t get royalties working for any British comics and John and I were looking forward to getting some royalties on Batman because American writers and artists got royalties depending on the sales. After five months or so the first royalty statements came in and the sales were still below break even and there were no royalties. John took one look at it and quit. Basically John and I wrote five issues together, and I wrote all the rest of the run on my own. I kept John’s name on the comic for the rest of the first year because we had signed a contract and I didn’t want to give DC any excuse to fire me.
NB: Oh wow, I didn’t know that, or if I did I forgot.
AG: That’s a long time ago now Norm.
NB: That’s true. Did John ever tell you later on that he wished he’d stayed?
AG: John could never bring himself to say it, but I could see the sick look in his eyes when I showed him some of the royalty cheques that I got from Batman. After the Burton movie came out and sales went into the stratosphere, royalties went up amazingly.
NB: Do you remember what the sales point, what the break even point was in numbers?
AG: When we first started on it, it was 80,000 per month and Detective was selling 75,000.
NB: 80,000 is a great success these days.
AG: Yeah. I know, I know.
NB: So were they lying to us about the break even point back then?
AG: No, but it was a news-stand title back then and if you look at the price it was about seventy five cents and if you look at the price of a comic now it’s about $2.75. When we started on Detective I’m pretty sure it was seventy five cents and it was selling approximately 75,000. It was like that for the first year, maybe a year and a half that we were on it and suddenly the Burton movie was released and sales shot up to 650,000 for the three issues…
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