Trust a horror writer to say something that would frighten me, when I’m the one conducting the interview. “Of course he scares me, but not in a way that most people would think of him as scary. Like he’s got a scary clown face or you go to sleep at night and get afraid that he might be hiding under your bed.” Scott Snyder’s talking about the Joker, and about why the Joker is one of the scariest, most well-conceived villains in all of literature. “All of literature” is Scott’s phrasing not my own. For a moment I imagine that scary Go-To-Bed Clown that used to appear at your window, each night as you tried to fall sleep. But talking about the sheer masterfulness of the Joker’s creation isn’t the scary thing in this interview. The scary thing is Scott himself.
Scott takes his time with the windup and with the pitch, and even if I know it should be there, I don’t see the ball at all. The play goes like this. Somewhere along the interview I just run out of steam. And my journalistic instincts corner me, and as a question in the form of an answer. “I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop and for you to reveal that this isn’t the Joker at all. That this is just some guy who stole his face.” And I brace myself for a pause. But I didn’t expect the longest pause in all of recorded history.
There’s a chuckle and a polite “let’s not give anything away”; Scott tosses his best curveball but also one that seems to approach from behind the plate. Like the great magicians and great storytellers, you can just tell that Scott himself has had a hand in manipulating me into asking that question. Into voicing that irksome, reliable last bastion of skepticism, and doubting that we’re really, truly dealing with the Joker at all. And that’s what’s so endearing about Scott as a writer of Batman. It’s that somehow, he equips you to immerse yourself emotionally in deep, darker waters of the Batman.
Questioning the validity of the Joker is indeed a clear example of this. Because questioning the validity of the Joker’s assault actually being what it appears to be is the only thing Batman has been doing this entire storyarc, “Death of the Family”. The Joker, Batman has asserted since the assault began, cannot know what he claims to know, cannot know the identities of the entire Bat-Family. And at that point I question whether or not this actually is the Joker, I transition from being an inner child in an outer adult reading about a superhero, into being that weathered, beat-down protagonist, wizened by the years and the villainy of the man he faces.
Grant Morrison, the writer to script out the most mythic Batman story ever told (the long drag of narrative that runs the course from Batman: R.I.P. through Batman & Robin on to The Return of Bruce Wayne), wrote a very different kind of Batman. Batman as the superhuman, the man who stretched himself beyond human limits, the man who could run with beings who could “listen in on the turf wars of dust mites” and hold his own, the man who walked as an equal among beings who “everything they touch turns to myth”. Morrison wrote a superhuman, superlative Batman. But also a Batman that was inaccessible at a certain level. A Batman we could aspire to, but never reach. Scott does the opposite. He simply makes you understand the Batman’s point of view. To the point where his point of view is hardly distinguishable from your own. And that, truly is scary; scary cool, scary masterful, but also just plain scary.
In the end, we only got through four questions of the dozen or so I prepared. And only two questions that I couldn’t prepare for. Because Scott, as it turns out, is a well, a resource that can be tapped over and again. Ask him one question, and his mind will trapeze between all the various possibilities. He will find and draw out the themes for himself. We talk, for openers, about the vast differences and the great leaps of faith one has to make when writing Bruce Wayne as Batman, immediately on the heels of writing Dick Grayson as Batman. And in a tone that doles out equal measures of mournfulness and hopefulness, Scott confesses, almost in an act of resignation, that Dick is more human, and is easier to write.
“They’re hugely different,” Scott begins, “One of the fascinating things for me is how emotionally open and accessible, and how vulnerable Dick is. So he’ll tell you, the reader, everything he’s thinking and he’s feeling and he’s sincere. Whereas Bruce is almost like an unreliable narrator in how guarded he is. It’s very interesting writing one after the other, because Bruce you really can’t get inside, unless things are horrible, when he’ll finally begin to open up. But for the most part you do this refracted emotional work, where Alfred or someone else will ask him if he’s ok, and he’ll say his fine. And in saying he’s fine, he’s actually saying he’s not”.
The sentence doesn’t end on a period, but on a chuckle. Chuckles are punctuation for Scott. Not knowing chuckles like he’s got the game wired and he’s moves ahead of all of us (although my respect for him as a writer probably makes me believe that to be true of him). But these are chuckles that play out like a public good… Scott extending himself, creating community between us, and the chuckles function to create that public good, that bond. It’s an uncertain chuckle. And almost confessional in tone. One that speaks to that inner darkness that haunts even our waking moments, the kind that Arthur Koestler referred to as “the Darkness at Noon”. But Scott’s is also a chuckle that reminds us, dark as things get, we are none of us alone.
I ask about grander aspirations for Scott’s Batman, about personal signatures and the role of psychological vulnerability in the version of the Batman he’s writing. “In terms of a personal signature in relation to vulnerability, it’s hugely important and it’s probably the thing I spend the most time on before I begin any of the arcs. So I have to know what it’s deeply about for Bruce each time. Whether or not he’s explicit and says to the reader, this is what it’s about, I have to know what it’s about. Whether Bruce realizes it or not. Even the end is not necessarily as important as whether you the reader sees what his gone through. This story, the Joker story is deeply personal to me, and a lot of the time I think, the way I approach Batman is about locating where Bruce in the trajectory of continuity. Meaning, he should be confident, he’s got this wonderful family around him, he hasn’t got any threats around him, Joker’s disappeared: so at the beginning of ‘court of Owls’, Bruce is in a great place.”
There’s something of the horror writer that kicks in as Scott talks about Bruce at the beginning of the ‘Court of Owls’ storyarc. It’s the same thing that is absolutely clear in Peter Benchley’s Jaws—the idea that without the town that is worth saving (more so than without the shark itself), there would be no story. Horror fiction is the discipline of counterweight. It’s the good and the great that we can remember dimly, or yearn for stoically or dream of in desperation, that frames the narrative as a whole, and provides emotional meaningfulness. Without that virtuous ideal to yearn towards, the psychological and character unravelling of good horror fiction makes no sense. It’s important to understand this going forward. Understanding this is crucial to understanding how it is that Scott transitions us all as readers, into the psychic mechanisms of the Batman. And what Scott gives us is a completely unique, fully-realized, entirely new kind of Batman—a Batman who experiences fear, only to push himself beyond it.
“So I try and think of where Bruce is in continuity, and then try and think of something that’s deeply personal to me, to sort of, as a lens, to explore it emotionally. So that idea of the city, and what it’s meant to be and that sense of confidence that he had undermining it through that personal angle, for me that has to do with the unknowability of the city was the way in there (in ‘Court of Owls’). And with Joker it’s basically about fatherhood, as strange a that sounds.
“Part of the idea now, is that he’s conquered the Court of Owls, but he’s conquered the Court of Owls with the help of the Bat Family. And he relies on them and he loves them, and he’s close to them. And being the father of young children, a lot of the time I think—y’know, I spend these days with my kids, and there’ll be a moment where something will happen, I’ll see my son will slip on the slide, and I’ll think, ‘Oh my God’—it’s the worst feeling. You take them home and you think, I wish I could just stop worrying about them for a moment.
“And really, that’s what the Joker hears. Cause he’s almost sort of the Devil’s Tongue, I think, in this story. He hears you say that and he says, ‘I just heard you say, I wish you didn’t have kids anymore…’. And you say, ‘No, no! I didn’t say that, I didn’t think that!’ And he says, ‘Oh yes you did…I heard you say I wish you didn’t have to worry about them anymore, so let me help you get your wish… now they’re dead, now we can go back to the way things were.’
“So Joker is coming at Batman from a place of very personal terror for me. And a place of personal guilt, and also a place of great personal anxiety. So I think he is coming after Bruce in a way that is getting at a very, very personal story for Bruce. Because as much as Bruce loves the Family, you could make the accusation that in some ways he wishes he could stop worrying about them. Does that me he wishes they didn’t exist? Of course not. Does that mean he doesn’t love them? No, of course not. But that’s the way the Joker interprets it. The Joker says, ‘You’ve become slow and weak, and you’ve become nothing of the Batman I used to know. So deep down I know you’re unhappy. And I’ve heard you think this almost (not in a supernatural way, but just in a kind of figurative way),’ So he says, ‘Let me grant you your wish, because I’m here to serve you. And we’ll have so much fun afterwards.’
“So that to me, is not so much about creating a singular emotional arc based on Bruce Wayne over time. It’s more about trying to create big stories that really, really explore different angles of the psychology in different ways that do get at his weaknesses and his fears. Otherwise, I feel like he’s just a cipher. That’s the trick with all of these iconic characters—it’s to take them and find some way into them that’s true to them, true to the core of the character, but also is deeply personal to you. And that’s the only way I think to make something special with them.”
As Scott begins to draw breath, we begin to a draw to a close. There’s only one question left…“Are you afraid of the Joker?” Scott clears his throat and then he begins to answer.