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The Frightening and the Frightened: The Scott Snyder Exclusive

Michael D. Stewart

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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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