For a first time writer, artist Lee Bermejo is coming out of the gate strong with this week’s BATMAN: NOEL. The original graphic novel mashes up The Dark Knight with Charles Dickens’ holiday classic A CHRISTMAS CAROL to achieve something that’s surprising, new, gorgeous to look at, and also incredibly heartfelt. So you know, the perfect stocking stuffer for the comic book fan in your life (or even some non-fans).
In advance of this Wednesday’s release, we chatted on the phone with Bermejo to find out more about how he approached his first writing assignment, where he thinks Batman is going in the future, and why Bruce Wayne needs to lighten up. Oh, and some spoilers for the book, so tread carefully:
MTV Geek: I think we’ve seen this a bit with the preview pages, but throughout the book, there’s a really interesting juxtaposition of words and images… Can you talk about how you arrived at the decision to structure Noel like this?
Lee Bermejo: To be honest, when I started to think about meshing the two stories together, the original idea was to not have the narrator actually telling you that blue collar version of ‘A Christmas Carol’. The idea was to use that structure of ‘A Christmas Carol,’ but when I started the writing phase it was becoming pretty obvious to me that, the fact that I was going to sue that structure was what made the idea worthwhile to me.
I think at first, I was almost avoiding – purposefully – using the actual story, and as I was figuring how the scenes would be parallel to what’s going on in ‘A Christmas Carol,’ I was thinking, well, why am I going to write something else? I should just be telling you ‘A Christmas Carol,’ and then let the pictures tell you a completely different story that still mirrors what’s being said. That’s when the idea really gelled for me, and it became an actual project with a point – as opposed to just being an exercise in telling a story.
Geek: In the story, you have three very specific Batman characters as the three spirits who show up… Who they are makes a lot of sense, but given what you just said, was there trial and error there? Or did you have them set from the get-go?
LB: I knew right away who I was going to use, and why they would work. I knew that Scrooge had a partner, and so Robin fits right into that mix. And given that Robin had died in the comics makes it actually work even better to me. Catwoman as a character, too… Besides the fact that in the story, this ghost is a little girl, Catwoman would just be interesting because, number one, my version of the character is a bit more playful, and number two, she has all these interpretations along the history of the character. Even though I only show it once, I was hoping that decompression there would help people get the fact that these two characters have a history together. If you go back to the original look of Catwoman, it’s much different than it is today, the interpretation of the character has changed over the years… She seemed to work really well in that role.
The Ghost of Christmas Present, Superman fit perfectly because of his attitude – besides having the big, larger than life presence, I needed a character that had that goodliness to him. You can’t go wrong with Superman playing that part. And the point, from the very beginning, was to have The Joker play The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come.
Geek: You’re playing with a lot of layers in this book, the Christmas Carol layer, the Batman layer, but there’s also this meta-commentary layer of Batman becoming too grim and gritty in the comics, and looking back – specifically in the Catwoman section – on, “Hey, what happened to fun?”
LB: I’m so glad to hear that that came through to you… That was the one thing I was most nervous about. Purposefully, I didn’t spend a lot of time beating that hammer, but I did want to make that commentary, I wanted it be there. I’ve done plenty of grim and gritty books, and I’m sure I’ll do more in the future; I’ve enjoyed it. But at the same time, that’s not what I like all the time. There’s an element of Batman – why I think he’s so endearing as a character – is that you can do so many different interpretations of him.
I do feel like The Dark Knight is a great film, but that Batman in there? He’s almost like Robocop to me. He’s almost robotic looking, he’s got this surgical approach to everything… He’s almost not human. That’s supposed to be his whole point, he’s supposed to be the most human of superheroes. But he’s become an unstoppable force, almost like The Terminator.
That led me to wanting to give him a cold. I wanted to show him as human as possible, given the circumstances… And I do interpret the character as this urban warfare kind of character. He’s a product of this particular time period, but it’s also something that personally… I think I banged that drum in ‘Joker,’ and in this book, I think it’s more interesting to look at the character as a whole, as a nod to a past that is just as interesting to me as the current, Miller-esque, darker take of the character.
Geek: You touched on this a bit, but I’m curious to hear you talk about his costume a bit… I liked how his pants, and even shirt seemed a little looser; the costume almost looked like something someone could actually wear.
LB: Like I said, I picture this guy, and the current interpretations of him seem to be very armored. People tend to want to make Batman as realistic as possible, and when I started drawing the character, that’s the direction I wanted to go with him. I wanted to make him as real as possible, so I started imagining his costume with Kevlar plating, and it would be a bit more useful, and reflect a little bit of real world clothing that you might find on motorcycle dudes, things like that.
It’s incorporating those different aspects of reality, and hopefully juxtaposing them with panels that look like Adam West. Then you hit the nail on the head that this is a Batman of right now. I don’t know if this armored Batman will stand the test of time… I think in ten, fifteen years, Batman will completely differently.
But I think this worked for the comparisons to Scrooge, too, because he’s this very guarded- this attitude, his very demeanor is like a suit of armor.
Geek: You know, just to pull back a bit – and I’m sure you’re getting this a lot – but approaching this as a writer/artist, what was your process like? Did your two brains start fighting, or was it more fluid, because you were doing all aspects?
LB: In this instance, because it was the first time, I really tried to sit down as a writer first. I wrote the story in its entirety before laying anything out… I didn’t want to think too much of it artistically, because I was afraid I’d go, “Well, I don’t want to draw that.” I was afraid there’d be those typical writer/artist things in there where it becomes a bit masturbatory. I wanted to make sure that I could keep it to the basics in the writing, that would help me when I drew it – I wouldn’t fall back on certain crutches, and not do things that wouldn’t service the story.
It was just a writing exercise for me at first, because I’ve always wanted to write… But I did this before talking to anybody about the project. I wrote it out, and pitched it to Mark Chiarello. Part of that, too, was thinking, man, there’s no way they’re going to let me write something without seeing something, something a little bit more than a pitch. Because I had never done it before, and there’s a stigma against artist who want to write their own material.
I definitely tried to write the whole thing without thinking about the art, but that started to change as the project developed. I did some pretty serious re-writes, two or three times, just to make sure everything worked.
Geek: Just to wrap it up, for anyone who says, “Aw man, ANOTHER Christmas Carol story?” what’s going to make them have to pick up this book?
LB: Honestly, I hope that the Christmas Carol aspect of it doesn’t hang people up. I know full well that it’s one of the most heavily adapted works of literature of all time, but I hope people will get the fact that its not just about A Christmas Carol. If people aren’t interested, hopefully they’ll pick it up for the art, if nothing else. [Laughs]
BATMAN: NOEL hits comic book shops on November 2nd, 2011…but you can read an exclusive preview of it below!