Trash Mutant Interviews (TMI): Alan Grant
- by Señor Editor, 10 September 2012
TRASH MUTANT: You’ve worked in comics for almost three decades now, and for almost half of that you were writing Batman, creating some of the greatest stories in the character’s rich history. A lot of your stories were often politically charged and touched on important social issues, and those stories still seem relevant today. There was a distinct human element to them, and Batman was often spending more time helping Gotham’s citizens with their problems than stopping the latest insane plans of Joker or Two-Face. What do you think made Batman such a good vehicle for touching on all those social and political issues?
ALAN GRANT: Because Batman is human. He's experienced the full gamut of human emotions - grief, fear, rage - so he understands how people feel. Plus, he's a self-made hero. He didn't need an alien with a power ring, or to be born on a high gravity planet, or have an accident with chemicals. Intead, Batman took human powers to their limit with no external help (except for Alfred, perhaps). It just made sense to me that he would be a man of huge compassion - not obsessed to the point of insanity which some writers have proposed.
I've been reading Batman comics for 60 years now, and even when I was a kid I knew there was something not quite right about Batman's adventures - fighting aliens from space and the like. What they lacked was humanity. Denny O'Neil was one of my favourite writers long before I became a writer, and in many ways he brought back humanity to a variety of characters. And as an editor, Denny trusted me by allowing me to tell the stories I wanted to tell.
It's not that I don't like regular Batman villains like Killer Croc, Scarecrow, Joker etc - but it's very easy to over-use them, and the stories can become quite formulaic.
I'm a huge fan of all the different characters you and Norm Breyfogle brought to the Batman mythos during your long run on the character. Especially the villains, both the recurring ones as well as the ones that only appeared in one story and that was that. You didn't really use the existing rogues gallery that much and instead kept introducing your own creations. Were you not very interested in using the “iconic” Batman villains that much?
It may have had something to do with the fact that I'd been working for the previous 10 years or so on Judge Dredd for "2000AD". Dredd has very few recurring villains because he tends to shoot them all dead, and you become used to coming with new bad guys for each new story.
It wasn't deliberate policy on my part, just the way things worked out. But after about a year or so, readers letters started asking why they hadn't seen any of the regular villains for so long, and I started to use them. To be honest, I always prefer writing characters that other writers have created rather than my own - although there are exceptions - so it wasn't a problem for me.
When I interviewed Norm Breyfogle I asked him what makes a good Batman villain, and if you don't mind me recycling this question, I'd like to ask you the same thing.
He (or she) ought to be interesting in some human way. As well as visual. With a decent reason for being a villain. Doesn't matter how powerful he might be, because Batman will always find a way to take him down.
Does it ever upset you when a character you created gets mistreated by writers that took over after you leave a title? For example, the Ventriloquist (Wesker) got killed off some years ago, and it didn't really serve much of a purpose. He's back now in the New 52 (he appeared as a pumped on Venom maniac who uses corpses as his "dummies"), but it seems like writers don't really know what to do with him and he didn't have many good appearances in recent years.
Yes, it upsets me - but I try to avoid the issue by not reading comics in which characters I created or co-created are written by other writers. I didn't know Ventriloquist was dead till some toy company sent me the Scarface (dummy) toy - which was packaged with the Joker. I honestly can't see the sense of killing off Wesker, because over the course of the many Ventriloquist stories I wrote, I was always careful to blur the line between Wesker being an out-and-out psychopath and the dummy being supernaturally inspired (if you recall, he was carved out of the wood from Gotham gallows, on which about a hundred criminals were hung.)
By killing off Wesker, they're left with a dummy that has no function unless it is supernatural - and that's a big mistake to make. I imagine it must have pissed off a lot of fans, because I think Scarface and Ventriloquist were the most popular villains we created. And the great thing was, they worked together. I can only assume it was poor writing or editing where the perpetrator didn't think through properly what he was doing.
You were one of the writers behind the “Knightfall” saga. How do you look back at that story and your involvement in it?
Have you seen “The Dark Knight Rises”? Did you enjoy Christopher Nolan’s take on the character in his Batman trilogy?
I've seen the first movie in the trilogy, can't remember what it was called. It was great in so many ways, but spoiled for me by the fact it was revealed that Batman wasn't a self-made hero, but his entire life had been manipulated by Ra's Al-Ghul and the other criminals.
So I avoided seeing the other 2 movies, but they've since been heavily recommended. So maybe I'll get round to it.
Nowadays if you pick up a superhero comicbook it's usually gonna be a part of a six issue long story arc, regardless of whether the story actually needs that many issues to be told. In the past decades a story that long was a full-blown saga, something reserved for a super important event. Now every story is that long and you never really get a complete story in a single issue, unless it's an Annual or something like that. What do you think of those "decompressed storytelling" and "writing for the trade" trends in comicbook writing?
I don't like it. I guess it's done partly from a financial point of view - 6 issues long is a good length for a graphic novel or collected edition, and if something becomes popular they're likely to make more profit from the reprint that from the original version. I don't have anything against multi-part stories, but the extra length should come from the drama of the story itself, rather than just being padding so they can meet the page target.
I'm a short story fan, so always prefer my stuff pared down to the bone.
You've been quite vocal about some of your bad experiences with editors while working in the mainstream comics. I don't know if you follow all the news, but in recent months there's been one report after another (probably more than ever before) of writers and artists leaving DC Comics because of problems with the editors. The reasons were usually either too much editorial interference, having the creators change things numerous times at the last minute, or a lack of cooperation and keeping the writers in the dark about what they can or can't do with the characters because there is no real planning. Plenty of talent, some of them real veterans and legends in the industry, left because it was apparently such a mess and too much to bear. What do you think should change in the way the industry is being run to stop things like that from happening? Do you think the editors have too much say in the way the stories are told nowadays?
I was an editor before I became a writer, and am well aware of the editor's importance in the scheme of things. But editing has to be balanced, and if it isn't you get problems. I think part of the problem may be that many of the young editors today are ex-fanboys, who have little experience of reading outside of comics, and become obsessed with their vision of the character.
But this is nothing new: in my opinion, Batman started to go downhill when Denny O'Neil - who was nearing retirement - started to delegate things to his editorial staff. They were fanboys, but they had little idea of what a story was or how it works. The last "epic" Batman story I worked on was Cataclysm - great idea, an earthquake strikes Gotham, breaking open the prisons and asylums and flooding the city with criminals. But where is Batman? Turns out he's disappeared for some months, putting together the weapons he knows will defeat the criminals…whereas if he'd never disappeared, the criminals could never have taken over. Sounds more like computer game than a comic.
Before I became a writer, I edited quite a few publications - female romantic fiction, a fashion mag, photostrip love stories, weekly comics, factual magazines and fictional magazines. I had no training as a writer, but learned so much from other people's work that when I came to comics I knew certain things - like the story is paramount, the story must be coherent - which today's editors have not learned.
Over the years you worked a lot on Judge Dredd and, his fellow law enforcer, Judge Anderson. It seems Anderson is the character you've worked on the most in your career as a comicbook writer. It's been over 30 years since your first story with Anderson in it and you've been writing her almost exclusively since the late 80s and continue to do so. What do you like the most about the character?
Same as Batman, really - she's human. She's the perfect riposte for Dredd, with his grim dedication to the law, in that she has a sense of humour and she wants - really wants - to believe that humanity is capable of redemption because despite the shitty state of the world, there's still a spark of something decent in the majority of us. I'd say Batman believes this, too.
I'm lucky in that I've been able to use the Anderson stories to explore things that are of interest to me, and I think that's why the character has been so popular for so long. Still within a normal Mega-City One context, she's been able to explore subjects like Christianity, does Satan exist, did ancient aliens land on Mars…all things that have fascinated me over the years. I have to admit, though, that after 32 years writing her adventures, it's become harder to find subjects that really interest me - I seem to be more into grandchildren than anything else, and there's not a lot of space for that in Anderson's world.
Speaking of the Judges, Dredd's got a new movie out and Anderson is in it, too. Apparently this movie is gonna be a much more faithful adaptation than the 1995 Stallone flick. How do you feel about Dredd returning to the big screen? Are you excited for it? Are there any worries that it might not do justice to the characters that you've been working on for so long?
I didn't create Dredd, so I have no real interest in the movie; as far as I know, none of the characters I created are used in it. . I've only seen the television ads, which look great. John Wagner (Dredd's creator and my longtime writing partner) has seen it, and says it's infinitely better than Stallone's farcical outing from some years ago. I won't get the chance to see it till the end of this month, when I'm attending a special screening along with Dredd artists like Cam Kennedy and Colin MacNeil. I'm looking forward to it, and I hope it does well at the box office - John Wagner deserves it.
I've read 2 reviews of it in the daily newspapers - one says it's great, sticks to the original, and gives it 4 stars. The other says it's mediocre and gives it 2 stars. I think the first review might have been written by someone who grew up on Dredd, while the second one is by somebody who read Ovid and Plato.
Your latest comicbook is "Tales of the Buddha (Before He Got Enlightened)" from Renegade Arts Entertainment. Can you tell us a bit more about this book and how it came to be?
I was looking for a 3-panel gag strip to use as filler material in the Scottish alternative comic Northern Lightz. I wrote the first 6 or 7 strips, and asked my old friend Jon Haward to draw them and Jamie Grant to letter and colour them. I didn't know any more until they were published - and the editors had run them all together over 2 or 3 pages. I immediately saw how the character could work in any kind of story, and things just went on from there. I figured - all this is taking place before he's enlightened, so anything can happen. Renegade are selling the collected edition as an e-book right now, supposed to be a soft cover around December.
Must say, I've enjoyed working on Buddha more than any character since DC closed down Lobo. I used to love writing the Main Man because it was so over the top it was absurd. I had many good laughs writing in, and it left a humour void in my life when DC said "no mas." So Buddha was - to coin a phrase - a godsend. There's an inexhaustible fund of stories, so I hope the first edition sells well, as I'd really like to write more.
What other works can your fans look forward to in the near future?
I've been fairly ill for the past 3 years or so, and my work-rate has declined quite considerably. I'm still writing Judge Anderson and Judge Dredd for the Megazine, and Durham Red for 2000AD. My graphic novel of the 1812 War between Canada and America has been published by Renegade, and I'm doing preliminary work on converting a well-known Canadian book into a graphic novel. I just finished work on a comic for a social services department, involving a "real" autistic boy who saves Edinburgh from a zombie attack.
My daughter's just had her first children's book published, and she's asked me to write her next one.
Thank you so much for the interview!
Related articles that you might enjoy:
The 3 great Grant/Breyfogle Batman villains
Trash Mutant Interviews (TMI): Norm Breyfogle