Now we’re in the middle of Comic-Book awards season, the impact of Scott Snyder’s work over the past year is becoming incredibly apparent. The recipient of a Stan Lee Award for ‘Man of the Year’ and Eagle Award for ‘Writer of the Year’, the man responsible for the relaunch of Batman and Swamp Thing, along with his own projects American Vampire and Severed, has stepped absolutely into the spotlight, and has written some of the best stories of the past few years. I had the chance to speak with him at London’s Kapow Comic-Con (the day after he won Man of the Year!), and we had a really good talk about his writing style and how he feels he’s developed as a writer over the past year.
Steve Morris for Comics Bulletin: When you first came to DC with your pitch for both Batman and Swamp Thing, you could have started off by saying “right, let’s have a six-issue story with Batman VS Joker”, but instead you decided on two long-form, slow burn stories instead. What was it that made you want to focus on long-form development instead of short-term impact?
Scott Snyder: Well for me really, it wasn’t so much about deciding on the structure of the stories as it was, I approached them about writing those characters because I had stories in mind for them, so these are stories that I’ve been thinking about and working on in my head for a really long time before I got the opportunity to write the characters. So it was more sort of about being like, “Here’s a story I love and I care about and if you like it, let’s do it.” You know what I mean? As opposed to thinking what would be more strategically better – and I’ve done both, I’ve done stories that have been shorter arcs, with a longer arc beneath it — like Detective — and then I’ve done stories like this with Batman, where there’s this big one giant story.
So I try and just think of what’s best for the material itself, given what it is. The Court of Owls is one big story because it’s about Batman’s relentless fight with this one enemy, over and over again, whereas Detective was really about Dick Grayson not realizing how this James Jr. plot’s kind of developing beneath the surface of all these little things that’re happening [to Dick] in Gotham. So all of it really just depends on, I guess, what serves the story best as opposed to thinking about what serves the series; it’s more what serves the story for the character.
CB: So you started off with an idea for how to add and build to Bruce’s character foremost, and developed outwards from there?
Snyder: It’s always about trying to find what you love about the character and writing a story in a way that challenges an aspect of them. So with Bruce, what I love the most about him is how confident he is and how he feels like he is the only and greatest hero in Gotham. Even though he has these other great heroes as well, he knows that he’s its legend, he’s the bat signal.
CB: He feels like he’s the leader behind them.
Snyder: He’s the leader, it’s his city; to the point where that’s become cliché, where he says ‘it’s my city’. So the idea really was to try and then write a story where that element of his personality is challenged to its core, so what Gotham is saying to him in this arc is, “You don’t know us at all. I’m a mystery to you; I’m a stranger to you and maybe I’m an enemy. ” But the point is simply, “You don’t know my history, you don’t know who I am now and you don’t know who I might be tomorrow, so back off.” That’s the idea.
The way I approached this was, and that’s what I do in Swamp Thing too, is to try and think, “What about the character I love, I love that he’s a man, beneath all of it, sort of longing for his humanity, even when he’s a monster back in the original Swamp Thing and then in the Alan Moore, even when he knows he never was a man, he still longs for that humanity in a lot of ways. So I wanted to do a story where that element of his personality is really challenged, where he has what he wants, but secretly over time, cause he is human again, this mythology of Swamp Thing and this terrible future of Swamp Thing is kind of coming to get him.
CB: Both characters take what could be a silly premise, and treat it with seriousness. When you’re writing something like Batman, is it hard to combine those two aspects of the premise to make a coherent whole?
Snyder: It’s hard, cause sometimes I wanted to tell a joke or something and I’m like, “It’s just wrong, you can’t do it!” But the only way to write Batman, really, if you want to write Batman; is you have to pretend like you made him up. Because you have to do it in such a way where you understand that you love the character enough to feel ownership, despite all the other versions of the character you’ve read before. Meaning your version will honor and be a dignified version, be your own take, but will also build on a history of all the Batmans that came before. So my Batman isn’t Frank Miller’s Batman, but that Frank Miller Batman is in the DNA of my Batman, do you know what I’m saying? The only way you can do it is to be not worried too much about whether your Batman is the right one from before. You have to make him your own because it’s paralyzingly intimidating once you realize you’re writing Batman — because Batman means the world to all of us that like Batman at all. My son dresses as Batman for Halloween and you come here [to the convention] and you see people with Batman tattoos and if you think about all that stuff, you freeze up. You’ll be like, “Batman’s too important, I can’t do it.” You have to get that aura off of it for yourself, to be able to write him in a way that’s intimate and personal and feels alive, I think, on page.
: Something I’ve noticed a lot in your work recently as well is that you’ve been trying a lot of more experimental things in the stories, where with the Batman issue 5, the art starts to spin as Bruce loses track of his mind – or in Swamp Thing, you at one point delivered a world of backstory via the dying dream-sequence of ‘The Parliament of Trees’ avatar. Do you find these sorts of things more interesting to write as whole, just adding little quirks in there to flip things round a little bit and keep readers confused and guessing?
Snyder: You know, I’m still pretty green at this. I have a lot to learn as a comic writer in a way that I’m really proud of these stories and I’m giving it my absolute best, I promise, but I’m learning too along the way and realizing, “you know, you can try this and maybe it will expand your story telling technique.” So it’s mostly, I try and think of things that serve the story the best and as someone that’s still sort of relatively new, I’m still excited about learning those things and figuring them out as it goes forward.
CB: You also work as a teacher, talking to students about comics – which is excellent, we could do with more people analyzing the way comics are put together. How does your class come together, what kind of things do you discuss with students?
Snyder: The way I teach the class is to look at the modern history of comics a little bit. We start in the late 70’s and 80’s and come up to the present. And every week we try and think of a different fictional technique to examine – so week one will be character art, one will be twist endings, one will be emotional conflict, a metaphor, that kind of stuff. At heart the class is a workshop, where they get to hand in scripts and I look at them with them and we workshop them. And the golden rule of the class, the reason I do it honestly, is because the golden rule of the class is always, “You have to come in and write the story that you like to pick up and read, no matter what it is.” It could be as light as Archie, or it could be political, it could be superhero, or so on. Then I go home and feel like I have to do the same thing. And I’m amazed that I’ve raved the students here all the time about putting personal stuff and daring stuff on the page, and to me it keeps you honest, you know.
CB: Does it give you more of an editorial sense as well, when you’re writing your own work? Because you’re looking at other people’s work all the time, evaluating what’s working in that, what isn’t working in that, you can then apply that to yourself; it’s kind of teaching yourself how to better your writing.
Snyder: Yeah, I think so. I really feel like the better editor you are for other people’s stuff, the better editor you are for your own, so again I’m still learning but I feel like that really is a very helpful process.
CB: When you’re looking at someone else’s script, what kind of things make it pop for you? What kind of things are you looking for in a story?
Snyder: Well what I’m looking for really, first and foremost, is that it’s about something for them; meaning it doesn’t have to be serious, it can be funny, but it needs to be something that they clearly are passionate about, even if that means creating the silliest comic in the world. So I don’t want them to feel like they’re writing any kind of generic formula or doing something just to use characters they love because they want to use them — but to have something new that they’re doing, that’s they’re own.
CB: Expressing their own voice.
Snyder: Expressing their own voice. The second thing I look for is confidence on the page. And that can be learned, over time. What I love is when I see someone that has a message or something that they’re interested in, whether they’re telling a Batman story or they’re telling a comedic story or whatever, and that’s there on the page and they’re interested in expressing it. What I try and help them do is to figure out ways of doing that, and find the best way to articulate their idea. So maybe that means starting with a flashback, maybe that means starting with a flash-forward, maybe it means starting in the action — but it’s really what your comic is about. Meaning, all those choices are dictated by what the thing means to you and what it’s about; it always has to come from that. What is your comic? What is it about? What are you exploring? What does it mean to you? Why does it matter to you? And then letting that become a series of decisions which dictate everything you decide artistically. Everything is in service of getting that across.
In Batman the story is about Batman feeling uncomfortable in Gotham because suddenly he thinks that the city isn’t the thing he knew. What does that mean? How do I start the story? Well I start it by showing how confident he is, fighting his classic rogues and narrating to you over it like he’s not even scared of it.
CB: He’s not bothered by them anymore. He’s barely paying attention while he fights them.
Snyder: Right. So why do I do that? I do that because that is what the story is about; the story, the whole thing, is he’s too comfortable and familiar in Gotham. Do you see what I mean?
Snyder: You try and make those decisions based on what it is deeply, at its core, about for you and let that be your compass as to how to structure it, issue by issue, page by page.
CB: American Vampire, your Vertigo series, is expanding a lot recently; alongside the main series is a new mini you’ll be writing with Dustin Nguyen on art. Is this world building you’re doing in your own stuff, where you can drive it more yourself and experiment helping you feel more comfortable as a writer, as a voice?
Snyder: For me, I’m still learning a lot and one of the great things about the miniseries is we use different artists and this new arc coming up, Lord of Nightmares with Dustin Nguyen — who I just love — starts in June, and part of the fun is being able to use that series as a place to expan
d my storytelling techniques. So that story has a very, very different feel than the main series; it’s much more of a slow build, it’s much creepier, it’s got a bigger scope in some ways, in terms of it crosses England, France, Belgium, Germany, the Soviet bloc. The story has more political issues. So what I love is that miniseries and things like that are a place where I can world-build but I can also try different things out and see how they feel and do something different to what’s happening in the main book. I’m really enjoying myself.
CB: Thank you very much for your time!
Snyder: Thanks a lot, Steve