Interview: Greg Rucka: A Good Enough Man For Any World
by R.J. Carter
Published: January 1, 2002
He's killed one person, crippled a second, and forced a third into retirement (after shooting him in the back three times!) With that kind of a track record, how do people feel about him?
They love him!
Of course, we're talking about Greg Rucka, the new creative talent in the Batman stables at DC. Having made his comic book writing debut during the controversial "No Man's Land" (in which he killed Jim Gordon's wife, Sarah), Rucka, an experienced mystery novelist with several books to his credit, has continued to rock Batman's world with unexpected events and some darn fine writing.
I had an opportunity to speak with Greg as he was coming off his latest shakeup of the Batman universe: the retirement of Police Commissioner, James Gordon.
You've written crime novels about cops and bodyguards. Is writing Batman a natural extension of what you've done before?
In terms of material, yes. I love "private eye" stories, and the novels that I'm best known for are a series about a bodyguard named Atticus Kodiak. There are 4 books in the series, and a fifth one that will be out in October of this year called "Critical Space". He's a bodyguard, but the style has always been very much P.I., and I always think of them as P.I. stories. When I had the opportunity to write Batman, it was like, well, of course! He is the absolute, prototypical private investigator. He's the lone wolf superdetective. So, insomuch as there's a natural extension there, absolutely.
How did you get involved in the Batman franchise? Did they call you? Did you call them? Was it a chance meeting between you and Denny O'Neil in a smoke-filled jazz club?
It's actually even more convoluted than that. I was introduced to Patty Jeres who's in marketing at DC. I was introduced to Patty because the Best Man at my wedding--and one of my closest friends in the world--used to work for her. When my first novel came out, he gave it to her to read, and pretty much everybody at DC that got near my friend, Scott Nybakken, read this book.
It turns out Denny read it as well. I did not know this.
I hooked up with Oni [Press] and I did Whiteout, which was edited by Bob Schreck; this was before Bob went over to DC. After Whiteout started coming out, I was in New York to see my publisher, and I stopped by DC. Patty had mentioned to me that there might be a chance that she could put in a good word for me to do some Batman work if I was at all interested.
Both she and Denny tell the story the same way, so I have to believe it's true. She walked into Denny's office with copies of my first two novels, and apparently was ready to launch into a whole song and dance about why he had to meet with me, and got as far as "There's this guy who wrote these..." and Denny said, "Where'd you get that?" meaning the second book.
It turns out he hadn't known it was out, and he had quite liked the first one. So Patty said, "Well, oddly enough, he's here in town. Would you like to meet with him?"
So Denny and I had lunch, and we discovered that we liked just about everything the same. And he said, "Why don't you try writing me a Batman story?"
I flew home that afternoon and the next day wrote him a story. And two days later, he said, "Okay, why don't you write a couple more?" and that sort of started it.
What about the differences in format--is there a difficulty in transitioning from writing novels to writing comic books?
The formats are radically different for a couple of reasons, not the least of which and the most obvious is probably that... you know, I can't draw to save my life. If you need a physical, actual representation of something by me, you're better off just shooting yourself in the head. I can't draw.
But I can paint with words pretty well. So what you get is that... for me, comics really have to be collaborative. I try to write scripts that are open enough so the artist can interpret what I want, and I always assume that an artist is going to have a better visual sense than I will.
If I write a six-panel page, and I say, "This is the sequence and this is supposed to happen in it," and an artist turns around and says, "I can get you the same emotional effect, I can make it give you as much drama, but I can do it in four panels and it will look really cool," then by all means, please, because I don't know what I'm talking about. I understand the story--I don't understand, really, how to put the images together as well as somebody who does that professionally.
So as a result, comics are infinitely more collaborative in that sense.
With novels, it all comes down to me. So there's a sense of control there that's different, and pretty much absolute. But that's the primary difference: with novels you're working alone, and with comics you're not--you're really working--in the best of all possible scenarios--in an environment of a whole bunch of people who are giving input. You have your editor. You have the penciler. Even the fan base is so much more active, because the turnaround time for a comic book is so much quicker than a novel. The novel that's coming out this October, I finished about five months ago. It'll be over a year and half from the time that it's all done and everything before this book comes out. I'm going to be somewhere else in my life when that book comes out. If people come and they say, "I loved it," my fear is always that I'll have to go, "Which one was that?" Because in the intervening time I will have written at least one more novel beyond the next one.
With comics, it's six to eight months. And comics fans are vociferous! They shout and holler--especially if they don't like something--and that feedback is very different, and kind of exciting. It's a big plus and a big minus. It's a minus because fans really do seem to believe that they have... there's an expectation on their part that they should get what they want, and I don't think they've thought that through. I have a one-year-old son, and if he got everything he wanted, he'd be sick all the time. And I really do think comics, in some situations, suffer from that. You have to trust that the writers and the artists and the editors actually do care about the overall construction of where everything's going. They don't do things just to be mean. They do it because they think it's going to be a good story.
There's a long-winded answer for you.
I love long-winded answers. Not that I get paid by the word or anything...
(laughs) Oh, okay. If you like, I can give you one-word answers.
No, no, no, please don't.
You've had those interviews before?
Too often. Nothing like coming up with a twenty-word question and getting "No."
Moving right along... Batman has always been one of the prime characters that DC has had for inter-company crossovers, like Batman/Spider-Man, Batman/Darkness and inter-media crossovers, such as Batman vs. Aliens and Batman vs. Predator. Is there any possibility, now that you're in the position you have, of pitching a one-shot proposal for a Batman / Atticus Kodiak story?
There you go, there's your one-word answer.
There are a variety of reasons--not only legal--but here's a big legal one. Once you do that, there'd be the HUGE issue of who owns what rights to who and what, and I don't really want TIME-Warner owning Atticus. I own him. He's mine.
That's part of it.
The other thing is that Atticus's world really doesn't allow for that--yet. It's possible that in another couple books, his stories may become--I won't say "more superhero-ey," but they may become a little more fantastic, in that the stakes keep getting higher and higher, and eventually at that point, you can accept a guy who dresses up as a bat. Right now, if I were to put a guy who dresses up as a bat in any of the Atticus books, all the characters would be like, "He's a madman--shoot him!" as opposed to "Oh, he is a heroic crimefighter--we shall fear him!" There's a huge difference there. There's a conceit in the two different worlds, if that makes any sense.
One of the things that goes on with Atticus is that, in a lot of the novels--and in particular, the new one--I know I'm pretty far out there in terms of what's going on in the plot. But, I also know that everything I write in those novels is based in fact. I don't make stuff up. I make up the story, but the story is always based on factual information as I have it--which I suppose makes me look like a lunatic sometimes, considering some of the things people have read. For example: the third novel deals with a professional contract killer, somebody who is paid an inordinate amount of money to kill people for a living. I've had people ask me, "Do you really believe people like this exist?" And my response is, "Yes." They have to. The logical extension of our world and how business is done and how politics are done requires that there are people who are trained to kill people. And if that's the case, then it's very easy to extend that to one day when one of them decides, "You know what? I can make a whole lot more money doing this freelance." Which seems logical enough to me. I've had people look at me like, "Okay, you have just gone around the bend, and I'm staying here."
You see those kinds of killers in comics all the time.
That's the safety of comics. "Well, it's a comic book," they say, disparagingly, as if to imply that you can't really tell a story that has any emotional resonance or social merit with words and images together.
So, no Batman/Atticus. I guess I'm holding my breath in vain for that Batman/Hannibal Lechter story.
(Laughs) I think, probably. Yeah.
I'm intrigued by that name, Atticus Kodiak. I mean, it sounds like a Roman Eskimo. What kind of character is he?
(Laughs) That's good--I haven't heard that one before.
You know, one of my favorite books is To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I love that book. It's also one of the rare instances where the move is just as good. I love the film as well.
I knew I wanted to write a Private Eye type story. There's an essay that Chandler wrote called "The Simple Art Of Murder," where he talks about what a Private Eye story should be, in his infinite ego, that said in like 3500 words what makes a Private Eye story. One of the things he says, is he talks about who the detective has to be. He uses fairly sexist language. He's speaking universally in males, in terms of men. But he says that the man in these kinds of stories has to be, and I think the quote is, "...the best man in his world, and a good enough man for any world."
I took that kind of seriously. You have to believe in your person. So I named him the best name I could think of, the name that would connote the best man I knew of in literature, and that was Atticus Finch. So that's where Atticus came from.
Kodiak I got off a can of chewing tobacco. I was going nuts trying to come up with a last name, and I saw a can of Kodiak chewing tobacco, and I was like, "That's kind of neat: Atticus Kodiak." You get some neat fricative action there.
I have since grown to loathe that. (Laughs) If I could get away with it, I'd change his last name, because it's a little too much. He really does sound like a cartoon character, to such an extent that I've had people in the books make fun of the name. I've even had him make fun of his own name.
But if nothing else, it serves a purpose: You remember it. There aren't any other detectives out there named Atticus.
Critical Space debuts this October, and it's another Atticus story.
Yeah, technically it's the sequel to Smoker, the third book in the series.
What can you tell us about it without revealing too much of the plot?
If you've read Smoker, then the following phrase should be enough, which is this: Drama is back! (Drama is the professional killer in Smoker.)
The only other thing I'm willing to say about the book right now is it honest-to-God changes everything in the canon of the series. One major character dies. A couple secondary characters die. Every relationship is different when it's over.
It's an X-Men book! "This issue: Everybody dies!"
Yeah, except I'm serious. (Laughs)
I hate doing change for the sake of change. This all came about very organically. This book was real different for me. I sat down--and normally when I sit down to write a novel, I have it all worked out before I start typing. The long part of writing a novel for me isn't the actual, physical typing of the novel, it's the three months it takes me to figure out what's going to happen in it. Normally I'll write like 30,000 words full of notes--which in a 90,000-word novel, is a third the size of the actual book! But I'll have it all worked out.
In this one, I got halfway through, and it just went whoosh; the story said, "We're going over here now" and I was like, "But... but... I need you over here!" But I was smart enough to actually listen to the story rather than try to impose my will on it.
It's rare when that happens with a story, and it's a thing of beauty when it does.
Hopefully, people will like the book--that's the ultimate test. But I'm right now, today, at this moment, happy with it. Call me in an hour, I'll probably tell you it's the worst thing I've ever written.
You mentioned earlier that when one book comes out, you're already in the middle of the next one. So where are you now?
I'm actually not in the middle of it, but I'm about to start on the new one, which would be the sixth in that series. I hope to start writing it before the end of the month. Then there's a project with Oni Press called Queen & Country, which is going to be a bi-monthly ongoing, so I've got an issue of that I have to write. And then there are a couple of other projects for DC, aside from Detective, that I'm working on.
I've got lots of irons in the fire, so to speak.
You also have Whiteout being developed into a motion picture. Where does that stand?
It's moving forward, as far as I know. I understand there's a second draft of the screenplay in existence, and I also understand that a copy of it will be coming my way shortly.
And, of course, everybody always wants to know: What's going to happen with Batman--that Patty will let you get away with saying?
Oh, yeah, and that's the big question.
Well, in the wake of "Officer Down," with Gordon gone...
One of my favorite storylines.
I'm very glad to hear that. I'm very proud of that one, we worked very hard on it, because we didn't want to just... it wasn't a stunt. Marketing needs to go out and say, "Hey, pay attention to this thing, it's a big deal!" But for all the writers involved, we really were very serious that this needs to be important, and lasting. It's not a joke, and it's not something we want to undo in six months or eight months or twelve months. We want this to be a lasting change.
When they do a reboot of the Batman continuity--which will happen someday--when they go back and say, "We have to do Year One again," then they can bring Gordon back. Right now, he's gone! He's retired! It's over!
In the wake of that, Batman has a lot of adapting to do. Also, there are going to be some radical changes in his work life, in whom he can rely on and whom he can trust.
I suppose it's always good to throw out a villain: The Mad Hatter will be coming by in May and staying for three months. That, actually, is part of a storyline that will have a major development for Batman and Bruce, aside from the Mad Hatter's arrival.
Then, by the end of the year, we're going to turn everything on its ear again, and I can't say anything more about that.
How much flak did you get for Sarah's death? (Sarah Gordon, the Commissioner's wife, was killed by the Joker near the end of the "No Man's Land" story.)
I got some angry, angry e-mail, actually. But, you know, I had a huge fight with Denny about that, because I didn't want to kill Sarah. My argument is always that you never kill the characters that people don't really care about. You have to kill the characters that people are going to be upset over. To which Denny was like, "Well, you can't kill Bullock." Oh. Well, damn! (Laughs)
But if you go back and you look at the Sarah stuff, and then I reread some of the early stuff in "No Man's Land," all of a sudden it became very logical. It was like, from the start of "No Man's Land," we kind of indicate that she's going to die. There's some foreshadowing there that was unintentional. She takes a bullet in the "Claim Jumping" storyline, which was a full nine months before she's going to die.
So once I had accepted it--and I did go through the five stages of grief: I was angry, I denied it, I did everything--when Devin [Grayson] and I sat down to write that story, it really did click. So, when people came and said, "I hate you!" I was like, "Good." That's the purpose.
It would have been a horrible thing to have killed Sarah and have nobody care. That would have been just so wrong. Devin and I both said to each other when we sat down to write it, we're now going to write an issue that, God willing, will make people cry. And I don't know if it did. But it's a worthy goal. If we could have moved people to tears about it, that's a worthy goal.