Batman and the Signal creators shed light on Gotham by day

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In the final interview of our of Metal Mania features prior to New York Comic Con, we get a glimpse at a ray of light coming out of the events of DC's Dark Nights Metal.

First Scott Snyder showed us how Metal will be affecting every corner of the DCU, then Joshua Williamson and Jeff Lemire talked about the crossovers and the importance of the one-shots and tie-ins. Now we hear from Snyder once again and his writing partner, Tony Patrick, about their three-issue mini-series, Batman and the Signal, one of the new books presenting new narratives and ideas to a post-Metal DCU. It also features the return of Cully Hamner (RED, The Shade) and his thrilling art, which we get an exclusive sneak peek at below.

In Batman and the Signal, Gotham gets a new crimefighter who will not lurk in the shadows of the night or keep gravedigger’s hours. Duke Thomas has reached the major league of the DC Universe, having been introduced in Snyder and Greg Capullo's Batman Vol. 2 run in issue #21. He would later join the We Are Robin movement, but every member of the Bat-family must come into their own, and find out what and who they'll be. Renamed as the Signal, events out of DC Dark Days and Dark Nights Metal will put Duke in the mantle of Gotham City's first daytime hero, coming to your local comic shop in January 2018.

Tony, DC Comics became aware of you through their Comics Writer’s Workshop. Could you share a little bit of your experience?

Tony Patrick: The workshop, for me, has been a life-altering experience. I had a dream of working for DC and Milestone when I was a kid, and I grew up with the iconic trinity, Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. The workshop itself, I was one of eight chosen out of 1,000-1,200 applicants. I was among some very talented individuals who met with Scott virtually for about three months, and we workshopped two scripts. One as a one-shot, and the other is you get to play with any character you want in the DC Universe. So to work with Batman through Duke Thomas is a surreal experience. Scott’s a big advocate for personal voice, and he’s true to his word when he says that he’s cultivating new voices. He’s carving out a space for new tales and incredible narratives to be told, and I’m an example of that.

I read a lot of Scott’s run on Batman and was fascinated with Duke Thomas. Years ago at Canterbury Comics in New York Comic Con, I saw this African-American Robin on a T-shirt. This was the coolest damn thing I’ve seen. I hadn’t read We Are Robin yet, but I purchased the shirt, and this prompted me to read more comics and go back and pick up We Are Robin to brush up on the run.

I was mesmerized because Duke Thomas, to me, represents a different aspect of Gotham. I was really fascinated by the nooks and crannies of some of those major DCU cities like Metropolis, Coast City, and, of course, Gotham City. Duke Thomas to me in this new role, being the daytime acolyte, is such a colossal opportunity to explore the ecosystem and other narratives that would present themselves. To be able to work with Scott and see the inner workings of a genius comic book writer’s mind, just to get his feedback was invaluable. Learning Scott’s process, the inner workings of the DCU, and pinpointing what your own creative process might be.

So this is actually how you became the choice to write The Signal?

TP: In our [workshop] sessions, Scott had an open door and told me that I could ask him anything I wanted. One day I asked him straightforward, "What are you going to do with Duke Thomas?" He said, "Honestly? I’m looking forward to possibly doing a new series with Duke, and I’m looking for a writer to help me do it. I’m serious." It was virtual, but I literally raised my hand.

Scott Snyder: Tony was just a star student and kept asking about Duke and whether there were any plans for him. He pitched me this first arc that really established Duke as a hero by day, in a base called the Hatch beneath the children’s center, investing a mystery of a creation of a Juvy Arkham. I was like, that’s the one. Let’s do it.

TP: I am very grateful, but the pressure is on. To have Batman in Batman and The Signal, voice is important, there’s a respect and care that comes into play when dealing with these iconic characters. But that’s where Scott is insightful and supportive, and absolutely the right person to guide me through this process.

Let’s scratch into who Duke is, as this might be some readers’ introduction to him. Gotham City is a huge space with all of these corners that could be their own worlds, like the lower-class Irish district where Hitman resides, so describe to me Duke’s role and space.

TP: We have this African-American teen living in the Narrows, whose world is about to expand quickly because of his daytime role. It’s not just about the Narrows, it’s about all of Gotham. For Duke to shoulder the responsibility of daytime threats is an experience that’s going to be life-altering for Duke, and be essential to his own evolution as a character and hero.

You’ll experience some of his internal conflict of having the weight of protecting daytime Gotham on his shoulders, and there’s the angst of finding his place in the Bat-family. He’s been trained by the most brilliant tactical mind in the universe, and being under his watchful eye and tutelage, but also having to deal with daily teen life, teenage romance, and matters from the We Are Robin era, when he’s not in the armor. Here’s a guy who not only has teenage issues bubbling on the surface, but is also shouldering a colossal responsibility that would break the average human being. By the end of this series, we will have a clearer view of the Signal’s role in Batman’s family.

SS: The challenge with Duke was to find a role for him in Gotham that wasn’t taken. We didn’t just want to create another character and have him be a vigilante by night, and we also felt him taking the mantle of another character, like becoming Nightwing or something like that, felt limited. I talked to Geoff Johns two years ago when we were doing Rebirth, and he and I started talking about it, and the idea of him going out by day, and Gotham doesn’t have a daytime protector. It felt a good extension of his personality.

He’s never wanted Batman’s help or his sidekick; he’s just wanted to find out who he is. He didn’t even know if he wanted to be a superhero; he wanted to help in the way his parents have, but on a larger scale. When he was Robin, or a Robin, it was a life that he had, where he said Batman might need a Robin sometimes, but Robin can’t need Batman if Robin is ever going to matter. So Robin doesn’t need a Batman.

That was a new take on that character: It would be a movement rather than a singular character. It would be young hero's banding together, or a young hero who may be inspired by Batman, but didn’t necessarily fight by his side. And the voice that Tony is bringing to the character, in that he works with kids in Brooklyn in an arts program, he was attracted to the Fox Center in many ways that Duke worked at in “Super Heavy” (Batman #41-45), which plays a part in here too, where his base is underneath the children’s center. All of that just felt organically right.

Kate Kane has a distinctly military approach to Batwoman, Nightwing has come out of a large shadow to develop his identity. What separates Duke Thomas from the others?

TP: Batman is dealing with a member in his family who has metahuman abilities, right? Inherently that makes it a different relationship for Bruce and Duke than say Barbara [Gordon], Dick [Grayson] or even Damian. Another distinction is that Duke is a teenager whose parents have been institutionalized because they’re poisoned by Joker venom. There’s a common theme of familial pain, but the family issues that pre-existed between Bruce and most the other Bat-family is different with Duke because his parents are still alive (Kate’s are still alive, too). There’s this desire that Duke has, that I hope to tap in the series, here’s a kid who’s a natural-born hero, it’s in his blood. In my head I’d like to see a Duke Thomas that’s worthy enough to join the Justice League someday. But we’ll see.

So with Duke being a metahuman, can either of you share a little bit more about how that plays into him being a hero by day?

SS: We knew he was a character that had a long deep mythology that we had built around his mother and some of the books coming out like Immortal Men, where he would have photo-kinetic powers where he would take light in through his eyes and be able to see things that other people wouldn’t. We wanted his abilities to be powers of detection, not big super powers like being able to fly around or something like that. We just wanted to give him a different way of seeing, because Gotham by day is something that Batman doesn’t see, being a nocturnal hero.

So when Duke goes to a crime scene, he absorbs light faster than we do, and he can manipulate the way that he processes light. He can see 5 to 6 seconds of what happened before, by seeing the ghosts of light that hit the objects in the room. So he can look back at the history of light in a room and see what happened right before. Imagine a crime scene for him, gives him these powers of detection that are really, really helpful that can open up whole new doors. Especially for a teenager at school, and he goes to the locker and a girl passes by him and he sees 5 to 6 seconds earlier, he sees her saying to her friend what a geek he is, so it’s an emotional power as well. It also plays right into his personality.

How much of it will be about Batman and how much of it is about the Signal?

TP: It’s a juggling act, because these two guys are linked forever, because Batman is Duke’s mentor, and at some point he becomes Duke’s friend. The hard part here is the distinction between Duke and past Robins, and other members of the Bat-family, is that Bruce is more of a mentor than he is a father figure.

As we’ve read, Bruce doesn’t want Duke to become another Robin, he has learned from some of his past mistakes. There’s an opportunity for Batman to support a potential metahuman to go hero. I think that’s part of Duke’s governing principle, is to be his own person and stand on his own feet. He’s still a teenager, though, so that’s why he needs guidance until he gets older and further in his development.

What are the events that push out of Metal that lead into The Signal?

TP: This does take place after Metal, but there’s a direct tie-in to Metal because we begin to realize Duke’s potential in Dark Days. This is our first glimpse of Duke after those events, and this is the beginning of his life as the Signal.

Scott, are you actively working on the script or are you in more of an editing role?

SS: I get my hands dirty by going over the scripts with Tony. He’s a terrific writer, but I remember how nervous I was starting out in superheroes, which are entirely different from working on creator-owned titles. One of the things I try to help out is to say, "Look, this beat here you can do in two pages, not four. The emotion of this, can you do it by showing, not telling?"

He’s really strong already. The book has a great editor, Brittany Holzherr, so I’m not really in that role. It’s more like a writing partner, but I try to let him script it because I really want him to bring his own voice to the character, because he felt a connection to this character from the beginning. It was the character he made a beeline to, so I don’t want to get in the way and mess that up. I wanted it to feel organically his. For me it’s about steering the narrative, steering the pacing, steering the emotionality of the arc, and letting the voice of the series be Tony’s.

What’s one major difference of Gotham by day vs. Gotham by night?

TP: There’s definitely no hiding in the daylight. We don’t have the advantage of the shadows. Someone like the Signal, who can be seen in broad daylight, is more of a target. Daytime Gotham could be far more dangerous than nighttime, there’s a million more ways to die in the daytime.

SS: Gotham’s a whole different city by day. The new threats that grow by daytime mature by night. Bruce is Bruce by day, or is sleeping – he can’t really watch the city the entire time, and there would be a different police shift by day, which means that would be a different cop to meet on the rooftop, there’d be a different signal, a different costume. There would be different villains for him.

Ah, so would you say that there’s new rogues?

TP: There are new rogues that the Signal will encounter. There’s also Juvy Arkham [Asylum], and not every villain is waiting for night to strike. There’s a whole different ecosystem in the daytime. All of that evil we see at night is bubbling in the day.

SS: One of the early ideas we had was what if we created Juvy Arkham for him? They’re young villains that for some reason are being activated, becoming alive, or are attacking Gotham by day. All of this was sparked by the idea of what is Gotham like by day? What is interesting, different, and new by that, and how could Duke be the perfect hero for that?

Why do you think it was necessary for the Signal to have his own rogues and not have the anchor of Batman’s rogues?

We want him to have his own trajectory. If I’m looking at all of those nooks and crannies of Gotham, there’s definitely going to be new rogues too. Just taking Arkham Juvy, which I’m in love with right now, is an opportunity to see younger rogues. It eventually sets up a stage for us to go with those classic villains that we’ve come to love and hate, that day when Duke has to face the Joker. He’s inherently tied into Batman’s rogues gallery; whether it’s We Are Robin, Scott’s run on Batman, or All-Star Batman, he has faced some of those classic villains and learned vital lessons.

If we are able to sustain an ongoing series beyond its initial three issues and become the hero we envision for the future, then we’ll see those battles with classic villains. Remember that Duke’s parents are in their current state because of Joker, we’ll get that showdown between the Signal and the Joker. Hopefully, I’ll still be around to pen it!

What’s it like to have Cully Hamner return to DC Comics on this book, and have his sense of style and design?

TP: Cully’s another master in visual storytelling and character design. Cully is one of the best character designers in the business, and I am addicted to receiving pages every few days. I cannot stop looking at my email; I’m always waiting on Cully to send me the latest design or next set of pages. It’s worth the wait. I couldn’t ask for a better collaborator other than Scott. So this is a dream team.

SS: It’s a huge honor. I got to meet Cully when I first started at DC, and I watched him do so many designs and help others with the designs on the New 52. I knew him through Jock, and some of those British guys with RED, and the stuff he did with Warren [Ellis], and The Shade with James Robinson. We’ve been friends for a while, but I never got to work with him, so when he said he was interested in working on the Signal, both of us were so honored.

To have a real superstar and have such an amazing talent for designing new characters, new locations, new worlds, really, come to a book that desperately needs that sense of architecture, that sense of creative engine, because everything is new and made from scratch – he’s just a perfect artist for it. For the amount of effort and love he’s put in, it means the world. I couldn’t be more grateful to him being a part and being such a driving force behind it.

TP: Concerning the functionality of his armor, every piece has its purpose. If you look at Duke’s chest insignia, it doubles as a reflective surface, so if the sun were to hit it, it could be used to blind someone.

SS: I love it. The design for Duke is fantastic! It’s heroic yet so cool and teenage. Cully loved the character and wanted to redesign the costume. It’s been a real pleasure to oversee it, to be able to guide it a bit. For anyone reading this, and you pick up this book, anything you love in it is to their credit. Anything you don’t like is probably my doing [laughs], but there’s probably nothing you’re not going to like.