The Frightening and the Frightened: The Scott Snyder Exclusive
As the writer at the helm of signature DC titles like Batman and Swamp Thing, Scott Snyder flawlessly bleeds horror into the body of his stories. But where does that inner, darkening fear come from? In an exclusive interview with PopMatters, Snyder opens up.
The first thing you realize when speaking with Batman writer Scott Snyder is just how affable and verbose he is, in spite of the terrifying things he writes. A horror writer first and foremost, he’s built a strong reputation in a very short time of being an introspective, scary, thrilling and clever storyteller. Through his creator-owned work, American Vampire and Severed, Snyder’s shown a robust passion for historically based narrative, as well as for putting his protagonists into situations that forces them to confront deep-seated fears. His critically acclaimed run on Detective Comics, and the equally well done mini-series Gates of Gotham, showcased all of the possibilities his perspective could bring to the cape and cowl set. Now Snyder’s been charged with shepherding the marquee Batman title in the infancy of its second volume, as part of DC’s New 52 campaign. That has to be scary for even a horror writer.
“It’s paralyzing scary to be on a book like Batman,” Snyder says without even the hint of irony. “You have to have a sense of what you like to write about.”
Snyder certainly has that sense. Even a casual review of his published work shows a writer who is obsessed with characters facing their darkest fears head on, and in the face of overwhelming odds. “Horror is a means to get at the core of really good storytelling,” he says. “The monster is there to show you the inner horror. It’s either all your failings come to life or it’s there to force your hand in terms of showing you what you’re most afraid of.”
In very broad strokes that sums up Snyder’s plans for Batman in his “Court of Owls” storyline, but it’s not a story concocted just for the reboot. No, it’s a story that organically evolved from the deep recesses of his Batman fandom. “It [‘The Court of Owls’] is a story I really want to tell, it’s almost fan fiction,” he confesses. “The stories I write are about things that matter to me. They’re projections of things that I find terrifying and fascinating.”
This Batman story’s scope is immense, combining an enigmatic villain, a vast conspiracy and intense character development. Don’t let the masked owl-like character fool you, “it’s not something where you come up with a premise and plot,” Snyder says. “Well Batman hasn’t faced someone who dresses like an owl, so let’s do that. No. It’s more about how do I build a story that cuts at Bruce’s heart.”
This is very different for Snyder. While there is some familiarity, based largely on his Detective Comics run (“The Black Mirror”) and his mini-series with Kyle Higgins Gates of Gotham, those starred a different bat under the cowl. The difference between Dick Grayson and Bruce Wayne are on full display in his work. “They’re tremendously different characters,” Snyder opines. “Dick is a character whose greatest strength is his humanity, his compassion, his social aptitude. Bruce is almost a hero in spite of himself.”
There we have a glimpse into the type of mind that’s working with these 70 year old characters. As if he’s compartmentalized them for the sake of keeping his own sanity, Snyder continues: “Dick is like if you or I got to become Batman. He’s confessional, he’s accessible, he’s emotionally vulnerable and he tells you what he’s thinking and feeling.” But Bruce operates on a different pathological level. “Bruce is so guarded and almost an unreliable narrator where he doesn’t tell you what he’s thinking or feeling,” Snyder says. “He tells you the facts of the case and you have to use other characters to give readers the hint that Bruce is playing his cards close to the vest.”
It’s evident in these initial installments that Snyder is working on an archetypal level. There have been many arguments as to what type of hero Batman is: tragic, anti-, even romantic. For Snyder, Batman is a flawed hero. “There’s a real emotional weakness with him that comes from this sense of obsession that doesn’t just come from his parents’ death, but that he’s forsaken a normal life,” he says. “He had to know Gotham better than anyone else, and be its protector – it leaves this blind spot.” In that we see Batman as having some sort of fatal flaw, the mark of any tragic hero. But Snyder doesn’t go that far, as he leaves that firm analysis up to the reader. “We wanted this to be something where it’s not just an analysis of Batman. We wanted to create a villain or a case that undercuts his expertise and him personally.”
Forming a foundation for this story is Snyder’s obsession with history and legacy. This part of him, which shines through in almost everything he writes, has been with him since the very beginning. “I was very close with my grandparents and my grandmother used to take me to all of these antique fairs,” he says. “Which would have been really boring, but she would have us make up stories about where the things she bought came from. It made history a fertile soil for narrative and stories.”
There’s a sense of history being brought against Batman in this storyarc, whereas the past almost acts as an antagonist. It’s something that is heavily tied to the Wayne family. “It’s a part that’s been left out for a long time, this legacy of being a Wayne,” Snyder says. “There’s heroism in that that needs to be addressed.”
And so it has and is.
As Grant Morrison’s Batman stories have revealed, the Wayne family’s connection to Gotham is more than just geographic. It’s a root that runs deep and wide. Part of that has involved Bruce taking a more dedicated approach to his family name. “It doesn’t make sense anymore for Bruce to play the bumbling, womanizing playboy anymore,” Snyder says revealing a dramatic departure from the Batman we have known. “It takes away this notion that Bruce Wayne is just this mask he wears. You can’t be Batman and just shove Bruce under the rug.” Seems simple, but it’s a change that has been reverberating throughout the Batman line. Morrison had Bruce confess to funding Batman publicly. In Batman and Robin, writer Peter Tomasi has Bruce stop honoring his parents’ death and instead celebrate their wedding anniversary. That consistency across titles is creating a duality. “There’s a legacy to being a Wayne as well as Batman,” Snyder quips. “Reconciling those two things is going to play a major part in Batman.”
An element of Snyder’s early Batman run has been the horror he’s enthused into the title. As a horror writer, whose short story collection Voodoo Heart caught the attention of master of the macabre Stephen King, it’s something that Snyder is very comfortable with. It also reflects a larger cultural movement. Horror elements appear to be infecting vast swathes of our popular culture. From comics to novels to TV to movies, horror is having a renaissance. “There’s something really satisfying about going into a scary book or movie and have those fears closed down afterward,” Snyder says observant of the larger cultural phenomenon. Whatever horrible things are happening in the world, we can go watch people fighting zombies or other monsters and realize things aren’t that bad. “It’s almost a relief.”
In those moments of zombie fighting, we are facing our metaphorical fears. At the same time, a writer from New York is facing his…just as the character he’s been charged with reinventing is facing similar obstacles. “When it became clear that my Batman story was going to become Batman #1, it terrified me,” Snyder confesses. “There were many nights when I thought maybe I should call in sick all year long.”
What scares the horror writer can lead to a narrative breakthrough. “In fiction, the characters you write have to be extensions of things that you either love or hate or are invested in,” Snyder says. The truth in that statement is evident from the quality Batman has delivered since its re-launch. The investment Snyder makes is in cutting to the core of the titular character, side-stepping the conundrums that come with elaborate plots to arrive at a point where storyline and character meet. One is frightening, the other is frightened. And if we are to buy into the fear, the person telling the story must also feel our trepidation…if not share in it.