Tracy Hickman is a New York Times bestselling fantasy author, perhaps best known for his Dragonlance series. But recently he moved away from his fantasy roots a bit to take on Batman in his new novel, Wayne of Gotham. Set both in the present and the past, this novel deals with Bruce Wayne coming to grips with the history of his parents that he is just now beginning to understand.
For longtime fans of the comic, Hickman's book is a deep exploration of the character’s rich history, but, also, newcomers to Caped Crusader’s world should have no problem settling right into the unpredictable plot. After you read the book, you can check out the writing workshop that Hickman and his wife offer online here to get schooled by the man himself. Complex recently caught up with Hickman recently to talk a bit about his new take on Batman.
Interview by Jason Serafino (@serafinoj1)
Can you give us a brief synopsis of Wayne of Gotham and what readers can expect from it?
Sure. Wayne of Gotham is very much a father-and-son exploration. We’ve always seen Thomas Wayne through the years as this figure carved in marble; this perfect man. The only thing we really know about is that he died in that alley outside of a theater. But every son has to confront the reality of his father at some point in his life. And so Wayne of Gotham is about that.
It’s about Batman confronted by a villain in the present, but all of the things that are happening keeping harking back to the late 1950’s and things that happened in his father’s life. So Batman has to reopen his father’s death; he has to reopen the investigation into the killing in the alleyway and come to discover who his father actually was. In the process he discovers that many of his own problems in the present day may have been caused by things that his father had done in the late '50s.
So not only is it a thrilling Batman adventure written in a dark noir style, but it also deals a lot with the Batman history and the Batman background, in particular the background of his father and mother, Thomas Wayne and Martha Kane.
No doubt you were a big Batman fan before writing this. How much research did you have to do for this novel, or was it mostly second nature for you?
I actually had to do a great deal of research. One of the first things that I was told by DC when we went into this project was that, “You can do anything you want with Batman.”
I think in some way it’s kind of like the Jurassic Park thing, where I found as much DNA as possible and tried to put it together into something that works.
My first impulse was, “Wow, I can do anything I want with Batman.” But a nanosecond later I realized that this is an icon. Not only that, but it’s an icon and a person that has been developing for over 70 years now. So each person who has come and approached Batman through the decades has tried to bring something new to this character and tried to change it and leave their mark on it in some way. And all of that has evolved into the Batman that all of us think that we know today.
So for me it was important to get the background right, to do all of the research and weave all of the threads of the many people who contributed to the character into a seamless whole. So it took a tremendous amount of research. I have a copy of the Batman Encyclopedia and the back of it is broken, and I’m going to have to get it rebound because I spent so much time going through that book and double-checking things and making sure that what was written in this book was true to how we feel Batman should be. It’s a difficult task to come up with a coherent background for Batman because the universe itself literally has changed down though the years.
First, there was the multiverse and Earth-1 and Earth-2. And that was kind of shattered and rebuilt and resurrected. And more recently with the New 52 all of that has been shaken up yet again. So to try to come up with something solid underneath that still said “Batman” and to what each of us feels Batman is was the real challenge with writing the book.
What were your main inspirations for the Thomas Wayne portions? The comics never really delved into his background too much. Did you look at other novels and movies for inspiration?
I found a lot of inspiration from the films, of course, mostly in terms of the texture and the feel and the emotional response that we associate with Batman. I was very much influenced by both the [Tim] Burton and [Christopher] Nolan films in different ways. Both of which led me very much towards a noir style, so I found myself reading a lot of Dashiell Hammett, for example, as I was writing this book just for the texture and the flavor. But mostly the background of Thomas Wayne—and we don’t know a lot about Thomas Wayne—and yet there is a great deal about Thomas Wayne seeded throughout the years in the various comics.
There is a scene in one comic from the ‘60s-‘70s where Batman finds a film, a newsreel film, of his father. This newsreel film is from the ‘50s, and his father has come to this costume ball in a Zorro costume, which strangely enough looks a lot like a Batman suit in the footage. And so it’s like he’s watching his father almost beating up thugs as though he were Batman. And so this one scene that he have of Thomas Wayne in the past was something that I worked into the book and made an integral part of the story in this book.
That’s just one example of finding the little pieces of Thomas Wayne; the little shards and shadows of Thomas Wayne that are found in the comic books and bringing them all together in the background of this book. I think in some way it’s kind of like the Jurassic Park thing where I found as much DNA as possible and tried to put it together into something that works.
There's a lot of Batman tech in this book and you go into great detail about how it works and how he uses it. Was it difficult for you to do, or did you have fun describing all of his gadgets?
One of the wonderful things about Batman is that he is just a man. He doesn't have superpowers or extraordinary powers other than his tremendous intellect and physical prowess. So to the great extent he’s defined by the technology that he uses and by the “wonderful, marvelous toys” as the Joker would like to say. The real challenge in the book was to come up with technology that was new, that made sense, and yet at the same time was still true to Batman. When I signed onto the project, DC said, “Go ahead and redesign the suit and the Batmobile.” And I thought, “Well I can do that, but if I’m gonna redesign the Batsuit, it better still look like the Batsuit. It better still have a cape; it better still have a cowl; it better still have a utility belt."
So the challenge was to do something new with the batsuit that made sense and made all of those elements make sense as well. So I did a lot of research in terms of what current day technologies might be used in a batsuit. And also the fact that in this book Batman is getting a little older and a little slower and needs a little extra help led us to the technology that we’re using in the batsuit. And the fact that we’re using exo-musculature built into the suit to enhance his strength and enhance his performance.
If there is one thing that I tried to keep in mind in this entire process is that this is really, for me, an homage to all of those people who contributed to what we know Batman to be.
A liquid-based electro-polymer actually made sense and gave us the whole concept that the suit can actually bleed and lose its strength through bleeding out. It’s a beautiful image in terms of Batman and who he is. So it was one of those questions of, “Yes, we need to do something new, but at the same time what we do still needs to sound like Batman and have that feel.” In fact the change in technology became part of the book.
Batman, in the second chapter of the book, is in the Batcave and he’s actually reviewing all of the different incarnations of the Batmobile that he has made over the years and he looks at all of the different incarnations of the Batsuit. And we get some insight into this when he says, “This is better; this new one is better. But it’s still not perfect.” Even that essence of Batman, the idea that he can never attain the perfection that he demands of himself or his equipment, actually provides a reason why we see so many different Batmobiles and Batsuits.
One of the most interesting parts of the book is the portrayal of Bruce’s mother, Martha. Here she’s a bit of a drinker and party girl. Where did that come from?
That actually did come from the background. There were early comic artists who had talked about Martha Kane and that she was something of a party girl and did have something of a checkered past. Her actually being an unusual and imperfect mother, or at least not the perfect mother that we would always think of her to be, were elements that already existed there.
I’m just grateful for it because it really made her character far more interesting. And for that matter it made Thomas’ character far more interesting as he struggled in his own way as something of a geek and a nerd to try and attract the attention of this woman who obviously had social skills that he lacked.
There's a lot of comic book history here, but were you careful to make this relate to audiences that might not know anything about the character other than from the movies or cartoons?
It’s interesting. There are so many different Batman fans, and all of them approach it from a different place. You have the people who have only seen the films and only know Batman through the Burton or, more recently, the Nolan films. And those people are looking for a different kind of a Batman than the people who have been following down through the comics. Any yet the book needs to really address the needs of both of those, as well as the history that we have talked about.
So the challenge is to provide a text or guide for the reader that will allow them to access the Batman that they know and the Batman that they’re looking for. That’s a difficult task. The people who see the films are going to enjoy this book because I think they’re going to see the Batman that they know in this story. They may not understand all of the background history, and they may not understand that the background history is deliberately tied to a very rich history of contribution from comic artists through the last 70 years.
They may not recognize that, but they will certainly enjoy the story that is presented to them because they’ll see their Batman there. For the comic collector, though, I think this book will be especially interesting because they’re going to see the history woven into this book that they’re familiar with. They’ll find the little Easter eggs that we have here in this book. I think that the book works on multiple levels for different audiences and is going to address the desires for all of them. At least that’s my hope.
Was it fun writing Batman’s supporting cast, too, like Alfred, Gordon, Harley Quinn, and the Joker?
Writing the characters in this book, especially the supporting characters, was the most fun for me. The Amanda character that we have in the book is written very much like Kim Novak from Vertigo. And, in fact, if you put Kim Novak from Vertigo in that role I think you’ll have a really good idea where my head was when I was writing that. And so that was a fun character to write because of that; because Vertigo is one of my favorite films of all time.
But in addition to that, writing Harley Quinn was a delight. There was just a mad malevolence in her that was wonderful to write and a playfulness in her that was wonderful to write. Not nearly as vicious as the Joker was. But at the same time, writing the Joker, I can tell you that it just flew out of my hands into the keyboard; I just loved writing the Joker. There was something about the cadence and the madness in his speech and woven into his method. At the same time, because of the nature of the story, because of what has happened to him, or what someone has done to him, to make him more organized in this story, which he deeply resents.
There is that undercurrent of resentment of how he’s trying to fight against being somebody’s puppet. Writing the Joker was just a thrill and it just flew out of my fingertips. I’ve had some people who said to me as they read this text that they keep hearing Mark Hamill’s voice. That means to me that I got it right.
It’s definitely in line with the interpretations that most people remember from the comics and cartoons.
I certainly hope so. If there is one thing that I tried to keep in mind in this entire process is that this is really, for me, an homage to all of those people who contributed to what we know Batman to be. From the tremendous history of illustrators and artists who contributed to the comic side and the graphic novel side of Batman; as well as television; as well as film. All of those people who contributed to this great being that is Batman that we know.
Would you ever be interested in working with graphic novels and comics?
Oh, I would love to. I think it’s a very interesting medium. In many ways, being a visual medium, it’s a lot like film and television. It has a very nice impact, especially a lot of the artists today are very strong in terms of the visceral emotions that they can draw out of the audience. I think it’s an excellent medium for storytelling, and strangely enough I don’t think it has been utilized to its fullest potential in terms of storytelling.
Are there any new projects that you’re working on?
I’ve always got something cooking. I would certainly love to do another Batman novel if the opportunity arose again. I had such a great time writing this one; I would love to do another one. And yes I do have one in mind. In terms of the project I’m working on now, I’m writing an online novel at Dragonsbard.com. We’re actually using an old serial publishing model where we’ve taken a page out of Dickens.
We sell subscriptions to an online novel. My wife and I write this novel; we put out chapters every one or two weeks. And the subscribers come to the secure website and download the chapters. We have a forum where they can discuss the chapters and give us editorial feedback, which is kind of like Tom Sawyer whitewashing the fenc
But the great thing about this particular project is that at the end of the book, when all of the chapters have been released, we do a private hardback printing of the book and send a copy of that hardback—each one is numbered, each one is signed, and each one is registered with us—to each one of our subscribers. So each one gets a physical copy of the book at the end of the experience.
To learn more about Tracy Hickman's upcoming work, check out his official site here.
Interview by Jason Serafino (@serafinoj1)