Chicago native Bryan Edward Hill is a writer known for his heavily researched characters and deeply woven plotlines. He’s written screenplays (he once wrote a movie for Dolph Lungren), he wrote two episodes of the new live-action Titans series coming out this fall, and he's also written for Ash vs. Evil Dead. Hill is best known in the comic book world as the co-creator of Postal (Top Cow), his creator-owned Romulus (Image) series, Wildstorms' Michael Cray, his contribution to the Vertigo relaunch (American Carnage), and his current project, taking over Detective Comics writing duties from James Tynion, which dropped this week. I got a chance to talk to Hill about his origin story, what it was like working for Ivan Drago, and I got him to answer THE QUESTION everyone has been asking since that cryptic tweet a few weeks ago.
Were you into comic books as a kid? Or did you come into it later?
Bryan: Well, when I was a kid, my dad died when I was about 7. It was a weird funky time when you have adults all around you with strong hands on your shoulders saying "You're the man of the house now," and none of it really made sense to me. And during that period I went into a comic book shop and I bought a Batman comic. I'm not even sure which one it was, but there was little Bruce and he was in the spotlight and his dead parents were on either side of him. And I was like, “Oh, that's what I feel like. I'm gonna buy this.” So took my allowance money and I bought that issue, and I'd been reading comics before, but when I read that I just really locked in to Bruce Wayne and what he was going through. So that started my intimate relationship, I think, with comic books, but I didn't really have designs on becoming a comic book writer.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I went through different stuff. I wanted to be an FBI agent for a little while and catch serial killers. Around senior year of high school my mother's like, "Do anything else. I don't care. Just don't do something where people are gonna shoot at you and try to kill you.” So I was really kind of into studying cinema back then, so I decided to go to film school and be a filmmaker. I went to NYU film school, but I was too broke to make movies because it was so expensive then. I barely had enough for tuition. I mean, senior year I was living uptown and I was walking to school all the way downtown because I didn't really have the money for tokens (there were no metrocards then). I would get up at like 6:30 in the morning and I would get my books and I would walk from that neighborhood all the way downtown to Eighth Street.
I've been a scholarship kid my entire life. I was a scholarship kid to a private high school growing up and they all had more money than me. I was a scholarship kid at NYU and they all had more money than me. But writing was free. I could do that. So I was studying filmmaking and was writing in my spare time. [I was] writing screenplays, terrible screenplays on legal pads, in my one room up on St. Nick (Saint Nicholas Avenue in Harlem) and focusing on storytelling.
Which came first? Writing for comics or screenplays?
[Writing] seemed like a skill set that I could use to bring some revenue once I got out, but I still wasn't thinking comics. [When] I came out of NYU, I found a gig because I had a degree. (That was back in the day when you could get a degree and you could just get a job.) So I stuck around New York. I thought I was going to be a kind of an indie film director and write and direct my own features. That was the goal I had. There was a Starbucks on Eighth Street over by Astor Place that had these big tables where folks got to sit down and work all day. So a bunch of comic book artists used to go over there and they'd bring their little lighting units and their vellum and they would just draw pages there. That's when I met the first people that were working in the business: Nelson Blake, Christian Dibari, Afua Richardson, and Damien Scott. I would just rap with them about storytelling and look at the art and they found out I was really into comics, so that kind of got me in the periphery of comic books. But, you know, everyone was still early in their careers too. None of them were working on Big 2 books or main titles yet.
Then from there, you know, as I struggled for a while, then I wrote a Dolph Lundgren movie that got produced called The Russian Specialist. I wrote it in three days, hopped up on Red Bull in Bulgaria.
Dolph Lundgren? Please elaborate. That sounds incredible!
It was crazy. There was another script that I wrote and no one bought it, but it got optioned. That floated around and it landed on Dolph’s desk somewhere. So originally we were going to do that movie, and then he gives me a call couple weeks into that process and asks if I’d be interested in writing a story of his instead of my script. Well, when Ivan Drago asks you to do something, you say yes.
Two days later I get a phone call saying that Dolph wanted to fly me out to his villa in Spain and work with me on the screenplay for this other movie [The Russian Specialist] that he wants to direct. So I went from barely having anything going on to two days later getting a rushed passport so I could go to Spain and hang out with Dolph Lundgren in his villa in southern Spain. And then about two months later, I get a call about two days before production was going to start and it was Dolph again. “Bryan, the studio would like to do some changes to the script. So we need you to come to Bulgaria for the shoot.”
So you had to do on-set script changes.
Oh sister, let me tell you, I showed up in Bulgaria, which was an entirely different experience than being in Spain. Not many villas over there, man. I mean, some of those people had never seen a black person before.
Wow. You had a whole other experience.
Oh, I was everybody to everybody. Like I took pictures as Denzel Washington, Mike Tyson, Michael Jordan. There's a bunch of the Bulgarians who think they have a picture with a celebrity and it's just me. But I get there on a Friday, and you know those changes to the script? They actually want to do a whole new script ... by Monday. So I wrote that script in like three days and they shot it. They were shooting pages on Monday, but that whole crazy experience taught me that even if I couldn't kill the dragon I could wound it. And if I could wound the dragon, then one day I could kill the dragon. So it gave me a little bit of gusto to kind of really dig in to storytelling and try to make something happen.
So it really took you a while to get into comics.
Me getting into comics was just years of people ignoring me. And years of people looking over the top of my head, looking over my shoulder when they’re talking to me, that whole thing.
In fact, I met with someone over at Marvel, this is a long, long time ago, and I don't even think they're there anymore. And they specifically told me that I would never work there. But I don't listen to any of that stuff, I just move forward. So yeah, so I just kept doing the screenwriting thing.
You can't listen to that, because Dolph Lungren flew you to a villa in Spain.
That's what it is. I know what I'm about, you know? So I just kept pitching and pitching. Then the first real breakthrough I had was a short story I got in a Witchblade trade, and I had sold a couple more scripts by then that had gotten produced. Then I did a single-issue story called Seven Days From Hell that Phil Noto drew. That was a really great experience. I co-wrote that with Rob Levin, and then from there I talked to Matt Hawkins and eventually he brought Postal to me. I was actually in Thailand working on an animated feature at the time. Then I started Postal and continued on with that for about 25 issues, and that got me some recognition. And then I did a book called Romulus. That was my own creation with Nelson Blake one of the guys I met at the coffee shop who became a really good friend of mine.
I have a question about Postal’s main character Mark. What made you decide to give him Asperger syndrome?
Well, that was actually Matt Hawkins. Matt created the world of Postal. He had a couple paragraphs written down, and he was looking for someone to kind of form the story around that. For those who don't know, Postal is about town full of criminals and they're all off the grid. Some of them are fugitives and some of them aren't, but they're all trying to start a second chapter in their lives. They’re ruled by this draconian mayor, and her son Mark, who is also the local mailman, is on the Asperger spectrum. He's also a bit of the town detective because he has an eye for detail. So Mark's Aspergers were ideas that Matt wanted to bring into the book.
Now, after I met with Matt and pitched him a general story that he liked, I started doing my own research. I use YouTube a lot, and because people share on that platform, I just reached out to YouTubers who were diagnosed as being on the spectrum and I asked some of them if I could get a sense of what their world was like day to day. So a lot of what Mark is is based on those conversations, because I had no personal experience with Asperger's and I've always been interested in making sure there's an authenticity inside of my work.
Your really made sure he was handled properly.
Well, yeah, that's what happens. I think when you have an agenda of any kind, it's really easy to wind up making people cardboard cutouts of things. And I try never to have an agenda. I don't judge any of my characters. I try not to ever tell the reader how to feel about anything, but I try to humanize things as much as I can. And Postal was a great training ground, because in that book I had to continually find points of emotional reference with characters who had done things that we would find reprehensible. But I try to invest it with as much reality as I could. And no one's bad all the time.
Did it also train you put that kind of research into other projects?
I’ve got a book, American Carnage (Vertigo), that I'm doing that's coming out in November, and it's about an FBI agent going undercover into a white supremacist organization. He can pass for white, and he's disgraced from the FBI for pretty rough reasons. But he's a good actor because he's kind of guy that's been an actor most of his life. He is whatever the person in front of him needs him to be. He goes undercover into this movement, and I wanted the people in the movement to be actual characters, you know, I didn't want them to be cartoons.
I didn't want the book to be a diatribe, because that's not interesting and I didn't want the book to get boiled down to Trump, because Trump is just one man. So for that project I actually talked to real white supremacists whenever I could and had a conversation, just get to the motivations. I'm always interested in finding the common denominators that we share and understanding why people make the choices that they make. Especially when you see hate and anger, you know that's just fear in a dress. I wanted to get to the source of that fear.
This first 12-issue main story is about the main character Richard going undercover into a white supremacist organization, but that might not be the only world that we visit or the only group of characters we can explore. It might function something like an anthology as we go forward and follow different people from different walks of life and trying to get into the nooks and crannies of the conversations that we're having.
When did you start writing for television?
So I was doing Postal before the TV work, and when I was on Ash vs. Evil Dead I got to work on Michael Cray. Marie Javins reached out to me because Warren Ellis had read something of mine. It might have been Postal, it might have been Romulus, it might've been a little bit of both. He was looking to spin off the Wildstorm universe, and he liked my work and wanted my perspective as a black man for the character, which is really flattering, because Warren was one of the people whom I studied growing up. When someone of that stature thinks there's some value in your work, especially when you’re so under the radar like I had been for years, it's really empowering.
So, I started doing Michael Cray and I think that also showed people, okay, this guy can do characterization, and he also has a significant interest in action. And then more Big 2 stuff started to come, and while I was working on Michael Cray, they hired me for Titans, the television show. So I jumped on that, and I've been working on the first season of that. And that kind of brought me to where I am now.
How did Batman and Detective Comics come about?
To be honest, I don't know. [Laughs]
James Tynion didn't call you himself?
No, no, I was in Canada on set for Titans for about six weeks, and while I was there working on the show, I got an email from Chris Conroy over at DC asking me if I’d like to write a five-issue arc for Detective featuring Black Lightning and Batman? And I was like, “Did this go to the right Bryan?” I'm just that Michael Cray dude. Chris said, “We read your work, we want to hear ideas.” So I talked to Chris briefly on the phone and kind of gave him some of the real estate I wanted to cover. And then I hopped on the phone with Scott Snyder, and Scott's been really supportive of me from the beginning.
There was an Image Panel [I was on], and I was there representing Romulus and he was also on the panel. He was just really sharing and generous with his platform for new writers in the game. He gave me support on the ideas I had, and then Detective Comics just kinda happened. I obviously have a lot of Batman stories I could tell, but everyone does, right? I figured I'd have to work at DC for five years or something before that would get considered. And Lord knows where I'll be then, I might just be making mix tapes out in Paris by then.
Were you required to watch the Black Lightning series on The CW?
I didn't watch all of it, because I'm really busy so I can't keep up with everything on TV, but all of the writers' rooms of Greg Berlanti’s shows are all in the same building. So Legends of Tomorrow, Arrow, The Flash, Black Lightning, and now Titans, they're all in the same place. So I see those writers a lot, and I would keep up with what was happening in the show, and I watch the YouTube recaps and things like that. If I can’t actually finish an episode.
So for Black Lightning the television show, Jefferson has, I think, more experience under his belt than the Black Lightning that I'm writing. I see Bruce Wayne as eternally 41. Like he's like young enough that with dedication he can still make it happen, but he’s realized that he doesn't have forever in the game. I think having Jefferson be a little younger than Bruce was interesting to me. Jefferson, yes, he's a superhero, but he's also an educator, and part of his job is catching kids before they fall off the edge. So when you have a guy like Jefferson, who's brought into Bruce's world, I think one of the first things he considers is "What are you doing with these kids?" Like, these kids need therapy, not costumes.
There's a line in the book where he says he's from the Metropolis that the rest of the Metropolis forgets, because everyone always associates the difficult urban environments with Gotham. Jefferson works in the shadows that the tall shining buildings create. He's coming over to Bruce's end of the world, and I was interested in how he would look at it, because on its surface, prima facie, it's insane. And Bruce looks like a crazy person, so that's one of the dynamics that I'm playing out.
So are we going to meet the rest of Batman Incorporated?
This is my general kind of statement to that: When I use characters, I like to really use characters. I'm not a big fan of having someone come in and wave their hand and go away. So we may not see everyone that everyone wants to see, but that allows me to take deeper dives with the characters we do see.
Now let's talk about Aphrodite V. Aphrodite is a reboot, right?
So right now there are two things kind of going on. I'm writing the Cyber Force reboot, which is a reboot of the whole Cyber Force universe. I'm doing that with Mark Sylvestri and Matt Hawkins. Now Aphrodite V is a story about one of the Aphrodite models from the Aphrodite project. It's a series of androids that were developed by a company that wanted to make an assassin. And so the Aphrodite V project is almost its own little pocket universe. What I wanted to do was get outside of the Cyber Force continuity a bit. It's almost like how DC is doing its Black Label stuff, and I wanted to take one of those models, have her break free from her masters and land in Los Angeles five minutes into the future. So she's powerful, she's built for combat, she's built to recognize enemies and destroy enemies, and she's kind of looking for something to be a place where she can fit. I wanted to tell the story about a soldier who left the wrong war and who's looking for the right war, basically.
So she’s like a robot Ronin, basically.
Yeah. I mean, you know that that just goes back to the classic story forms that I've enjoyed. I've got these weird Samurai ethics that don't always match up with the way the world tends to go. So I've always felt a little bit like a stranger in an industrial land kind of everywhere I go. And it's probably why I identified with Michael Mann movies so much, because his movies tend to be about characters that are trying to reconcile their personal ethics with a world that is way more compromised than they are. She sees a crisis brewing in the city and knows how to tackle the crisis and steps into it. She's there to solve problems and doesn't really care about the feathers that she ruffles on the way.
I did a little research and looked back at the older version that came out in the '90s, and yours is definitely more Ghost in the Shell and less Barbarella. Thank you for that.
I've always seen like the role of women and genre as kind of interesting and multidimensional, and I grew up on Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor, those were the things that I was watching as a kid. So those kinds of archetypes got burned into my mind, and I just brought that energy to Aphrodite V because that's sort of how I see those characters operating in the world. I've got female friends of mine that are a bounty hunters and private investigators, and you reach out to people for research and then they kind of become your pals.
In fact, when I was working on Michael Cray, I didn't really know anything about weapons, and I've been to a range a few times before that but didn't really know anything. So for that book I had them kind of teach me a little bit of light weapons training, and some of them are private security and what have you. Those are real-world archetypes that I use in one form or another in Aphrodite, and some of these friends are very beautiful.
But they could kill you.
Exactly. Because you know, if you have a High Value Client and they're doing some kind of function, some kind of Bruce Wayne-like function, you've got the obvious security, those are your beefy guys with your earpieces and your sport coats. But then you’ve got people that are working the room, the people you can't see that are undercover, like air marshals on planes.
Are you going to write a screenplay out of your memoirs?
Oh no. It sounds real cool when I just bullet point it like that, but you know, in the middle of all the cool things are a lot of hot dogs and ramen noodle days. There was a point when I was so broke after NYU, when I was trying to do the writing thing full time, that I was living in an office building in Manhattan. I was over on 23rd Street, right around the Flatiron Building, and I was living in a little office up there, taking “showers” in the bathroom, living out of a duffel bag, basically trying to make my life happen. And because I had access to computers and printers and the rest of it I thought, "You know what? I'm going to just be broke and write as many things as I can." I was in that situation maybe better part of two years, and I probably wrote seven or 10 screenplays during that time, like kind of getting all the stories out of my mind. So it was a good period for me creatively, but it was a real. Real. Struggle.
So you seem to have started a rumor on Twitter that you were going to write a reboot of the Question, is that true?
No. I'm getting used to the transition from no one paying attention to me online, someone just asked me a question and I was being cute with my response because I'm a fan of the character, I think because I grew up reading the Denys Cowan/Danny O'Neil stuff. I just think those are fantastic comics, still to this day. I mean, if I were to do it, I would do a combination of both Rick and Renee, because no one's ever done that and because I like both. So it's a character that I like a lot, but no, there's no hinting. There are no plans.