Conversation with Greg Rucka (pt. 4 of 5)
We’re back once again with Greg Rucka, who has been so kind as to spend his valuable time chatting about comic books with us. Whereas we’ve spent the last three parts of our interview talking mostly about the character that future editions of “Who’s Who” will call The Question I, in this installment we focus on the background of The Question II — Renee Montoya.
This interview took place in two segments in the span of a week, and took several hours to complete. And yet I still never asked about the time that Renee and Cris robbed the strip club. Oh well….
EN: Okay — tonight’s topic: Gotham Central and Renee Montoya. Where did you first encounter the character?
GR: At a guess, I’d have to say in the Dini/Timm/Burnett animated, but I’m not really certain. Then she transitioned to the comics off the animated, and, again, don’t really remember who was writing what then.
I can’t remember a thing about the stories in the comics, for instance, for the most part. But I remember the character. She just struck me as a really neat supporting character, with a lot of potential.
EN: How did you come about developing her relationship with Two-Face during the NML storyline?
GR: Well, as I think we discussed, the first story I ever did for DC was “Two Down,” which was written post “Cataclysm.” And I approached that as a Two-Face story, because I’d had an idea about him and I wanted to chase it down. I needed a POV character for the story, and Montoya sprang to mind — she was ideal.
But, you know, you can’t write like that (well, I should specify: I can’t write like that). I can’t just pick a character for a plot point. So as I was writing, the story became as much about her as it was about Two-Face. One could probably argue moreso. And that story was the genesis of it. I finished “Two Down,” and I knew two things. The first was that Two-Face/Harvey was going to fall in love with her. And the second was that she was queer. That seemed to me a good, inherent drama to play with, and that’s what fed into the NML stories with her and Two-Face.
EN: So the conflict of “Half a Life” was there already…and this was a few years before you got to tell that story, right?
GR: Oh yeah. I finished “Two Down,” and I remember talking to Denny about the character and this idea that I had, how I could see this whole thing playing out. Didn’t know if it’d ever come to pass, but it was already in my mind that early. I’d been waiting years to write “Half a Life.”
EN: Does that work in the story’s favor, the long wait? Do the ideas get more time to develop?
GR: In some cases, yes. It’s a hard thing to speak about generally. A lot of what happens in comics is long-game writing. You plant ideas and hope you’ll be around in time to see them through. I didn’t actually expect I’d ever get to write “Half a Life.” Gotham Central was the book that made it possible. But, for instance, it would never have worked in Detective Comics, y’know? Just entirely the wrong place to tell that story. And I got enough heat from editorial about not having enough Batman in my TEC run as it was, about how I spent too much time with Gordon and the cops.
You corner just about any comic creator, and you get them liquored up enough, they’ll spill reams of stories they’re holding in their head. Stories they’ve just never had the opportunity to tell, for one reason or another.
EN: Those stories that fill that library in Gaiman’s Sandman.
GR: You can’t see it, but I’m grinning. Yeah, that’s the place.
EN: You bring up the fact that there’s little room for the GCPD in the Bat-books. When you first wrote her, there weren’t many issues in the past focused specifically on Montoya. Is it beneficial to have a sort-of blank slate with a character?
GR: It was for me. I mean, when I first started writing “Two Down,” I remember asking all these questions about her, and being stunned that nobody had an answer. What about her parents? Family? Siblings? Religion? She was clearly Latina, but that was so broad. From where? Born in Gotham? Things like that. And nobody had answers for me, so I felt I could roll up my sleeves and really build some of that.
EN: Do you feel then, that you’ve made the character — in a creative context at least — your own at that point?
GR: Oh, that’s a dangerous question. I certainly feel protective of her. I think you’re going to have a hard time arguing persuasively that there’s anyone else who’s put her to more use. But to say she’s mine? No, she’s DC’s. She’s a work-for-hire property, and at the end of the day, DC controls her, and DC decides what can and cannot be done with the character.
One of the benefits of, for lack of a better phrase, exploring a lesser-known or lesser-used character is that you don’t run into the same pitfalls you do with, say, a Batman or Superman. You don’t, for instance, have to deal with someone saying there’s a “definitive” version, in the same way that you do when you’re working with the Big Characters(tm). Y’know, at some point, someone is going to come along and write some Montoya stories. And that Montoya might be a very different character. Ideally, enough of the core has been established that she’ll be recognizable. But comics is paradoxical in that regards. There’s radical change, and there’s no change at all.
And, getting off on a tangent…we very much live in an age of comics writers who always want to “put their stamp” on a character. Used to be, you’d read Nightwing, and if the writer on the title shifted, you could barely notice at first. That was 20, 30 years ago, I guess. These days, a new writer comes aboard, and half the old cast dies horribly, and the other half turns out to pedophile carrion eaters or something. And I’m as guilty of it as anyone else is, I think. It’s something I’m trying to correct.
EN: What do you think brought about that change?
GR: Honestly? Frank Miller. I think it was Miller’s Daredevil and then his Batman that did it. Because the characters had been subjected to, perhaps, a single interpretation for so long that when he introduced a truly fresh take — and then (and this is key) was critically and commercially feted for it — it certainly effected the writers around him.
EN: For instance, the fact that you say ‘Miller’s Daredevil,’ and we, as a comic-reading culture, know that to be vastly different than if you’d just said Daredevil…. So is it the celebrity or the artistic legacy that folks are after?
GR: I think it’s both. Writers publish because they want their writing to be acknowledged. Otherwise, why bother to publish? Just write to your heart’s content and stick it in a drawer, you know? So there’s certainly a desire to be recognized for good works. And that’s no different than any other field, I don’t think.
We’re off on a tangent, and, as I said, I think I’ve been as guilty of this as the next guy. And we could spend hours discussing the relative merits of doing such a thing. There are characters who, I think, really need that fresh take. But others…leave well enough alone. And yes, I recognize the perceived hypocrisy in “the guy who killed Charlie” saying these things, believe me.
EN: In your run on Detective, members of the GCPD, including Montoya and Crispus Allen, make numerous apperances. Were you building toward Gotham Central, or were you just aiming to make the content more befitting the title of the book?
GR: It was the latter, not the former, though I was agitating early on for a book devoted to Gordon and a handful of his “good” cops. Writing TEC was, to me, less interesting when it was all Batman POV all the time. We knew who he was, we knew how he saw the world, what he did, what he thought. He was much more interesting to me from an outsider’s perspective, from the POV of the people around him. How Jim saw him, you know? That was far more interesting to me than just another Batman story where he foils Man-Bat or Penguin or Szasz or Bane.
I was a young punk then, and very full of myself, I must add. I’d like to think I’ve mellowed substantially since then. And none of that detracts from the power of a good Batman story, btw. It’s just a different thing. I think…well, you know, I haven’t really thought about this in a long time…I think a lot of what I was doing with TEC was avoidance, in a way. Like I said, I was very young, and it was BATMAN. It was easier to write around him, in a way, instead of writing to him. But at the same time, as you just pointed out, it was, to me, a very valid take, and I still think it is. I’ve always been far more interested in the “street level view” of superheroes than in superhero stories themselves, for the most part.
EN: One of my favorite Montoya/Allen moments deals interestingly with that idea of perspective — I can’t remember off-hand what book or issue it’s in, but it seems like it’s Allen’s first day on the job. He sees Batman for the first time and stands there kind of dumbstruck. Meanwhile, Montoya’s busy punching through windshields and saying something along the lines of, “Oh yeah, that’s Batman.”
GR: C’mon. You’re Cris, it’s your first day on the job, and there’s this THUD and WHAM and a SHADOW and suddenly you see this silhouette…how can you NOT have a moment where you blink and stare and think Holy Mother of God? Those are moments I live for in storytelling, frankly. Those humanizing moments.
EN: What’s interesting to me is that he continues to have that viewpoint later…it’s not so much a “Holy Mother of God, what is that thing?” so much as it is a “Holy Mother of God, what kind of world do we live in where a Batman is seen as necessary?”
GR: Right, because it was a good outsider’s take to have, I think. I liked the idea of complicating Batman’s relationship with the people around him, even the people he never really interacted with. He’s THE force in Gotham. He touches everything in that city in some way. How can you be a cop and not wrestle with having Batman working your city? I thought it was important to remember that, cool though he is, not everyone likes Batman. And that you could not like him, but you could respect him, and that didn’t have to make you a supervillain or bad guy.
EN: I think that’s one of the reasons why Gotham Central was so captivating. Every character in the book had a different take on the Batman-police relationship, it seemed…all very real. “Real” meaning that they were believable. The reader could identify with each viewpoint.
GR: Ed and I really worked hard at that. We wanted to give it depth, and both emotional realism as well as emotional resonance.
EN: Well, I think you pulled it off well.
GR: Thank you. We really worked hard on that book.
EN: So you both sort of pitched the idea of the book independently of each other?
GR: Yeah. It was a kind of funny independent discovery. I wandered around for months with this pie-chart poll I’d torn out of the back of a Wizard issue. The poll asked “Which supporting character needs his or her own title?” And overwhelmingly, Gordon had won. I’d been pushing and pushing for this book. And it turns out that Ed had the same idea. So we sort of tag-teamed it and managed to sell Carlin on the idea of doing the title. What really pushed it over the edge was Powers, though. Because we could point to what Bendis and Oeming were doing and say, see? Look!
But there was still tremendous resistance at the start. We had a huge argument about the title of the book, I remember. Someone in editorial — I don’t remember who — said we had to have “Batman” in the title, and we were absolutely dead-set against that.
EN: This seems to be a recurring thing with your books….
GR: We were at a Bat summit in NYC, again having the argument and Jeanette Kahn walked in on the meeting. And we told her the title we wanted — “Gotham Central” — and she said okay. We literally did an end run around editorial, went straight to the top. But the first trade, y’know? If I remember, it has Batman: Gotham Central as its title.
EN: It does! In little red letters over the GC logo. Was it ever Batman: Checkmate? Batman: Whiteout: Melt?
GR: [Laughs] No. But it gives you and idea of the power of the brand-name, doesn’t it? That’s why there’s a “Fifty-Two Aftermath” header on Crime Bible. Ties it to the “successful” brand.
EN: Hopefully it’ll work in bringing in the readers.
GR: If it works, I’m all in favor of it. It bothers me less with Crime Bible than it did with Central, frankly. In Central, I felt it was false advertising. Batman barely appeared in that first trade.
Thing was…we had this huge uphill battle to get the book launched. But once it was running, we never really had to fight to keep it going. We had fights about what we could and couldn’t do, and there were occasional requests to do things to boost the numbers (ie, put Batman in it more), and Ed, Michael, and I would have all loved more promotion and quicker trades… but in the main, once the book started rolling, it was given all the road it needed.
We have, I think, strayed significantly from the topic of Montoya, however.
EN: We’ll get back to her! For a long time — heck, even now — when I thought, visually, of Renee Montoya, I thought of Michael Lark’s version of her. How important was his art in the success of the series?
GR: Crucial. Michael was an active collaborator in the title from the start, in a way that’s been very rare for me in other works. Working with Lieber is similar. Michael was very fond of pointing out to me and Ed that we wrote in a week, and he had to live with each issue for a month. And as such, he was going to see things that we missed, and he would have insights that we wouldn’t, and he was more often than not correct on both counts.
There’s a panel from “Half a Life”, where Montoya’s turned to Daria, who’s come running out of her apartment because she’s witnessed the beat-down Renee’s just handed out. And it’s this one panel with Montoya looking very firmly at Daria, one hand extended, as if to say, I’ve got this. Period. And it’s the perfect Montoya panel for that moment in her life, to me. He just nailed that moment. And he did that all the time. I think the line is, “Go back inside, Dee.” And you look at her expression, and, damn…you’re going back inside.
EN: One of the reasons I asked is because GC strikes me as one of those few times where the writer(s) and the artist seem to almost have an equal share in the final product. I tend to weigh writers’ contributions more heavily because of my background, but I think here (no slight intended to you as a writer) that the tone of the series was extremely well established by the art choices.
GR: No slight taken. It’s absolutely true. Michael established the feel and look of the book from the first panel and the first page. I felt bad for Kano when he came aboard, because I really felt he had an uphill climb. And all this talk about Michael ignores Stefano Gaudiano, who really made it possible for Michael to deliver the art consistently. Stefano is a huge talent himself.
EN: I was about to interject though, that you guys seemingly performed miracles with some of the later artists after Lark’s Marvel exclusive.
GR: I think we (I) were very, very fortunate all the way through the run.
EN: The transition wasn’t totally seamless, but the mood was still there — the grit, the expressions, the half-lit rooms….
GR: I thought Kano did a great job in capturing the essence of the book without aping Michael, and that was one hell of an accomplishment. And even Lieber, on the issues he did, managed the same thing. I still think of Central as a very rare piece of work. I don’t know if I’ll ever be so fortunate to have that kind of perfect storm of collaborators to work with across the board again.
EN: Sometimes an artist change can totally kill a book, but I think GC was strong through the end.
GR: I loved working with the 52 guys, but the collaboration didn’t extend to the art, because of deadlines. On Central, it was there the whole time. It’s actually quite like that on Crime Bible right now — I’m working much more closely with the artists than I have on any project (for DC) since Central.
EN: How did you guys handle the collaborative writing process? Some storylines are all you, some all Brubaker, and some are collaborations….
GR: That was a lot of fun, actually. Ed and I would have a conference call with the editor on the title, Matt Idelson, when we were doing a storyline that would be co-written. We’d break the basic idea, we’d talk for two hours, and at the end of the conversation, I’d be on the phone with Ed and typing up a breakdown. We’d break down each issue scene by scene, and then divvy them up. Most division was handled very organically — if a scene features detectives from “his” shift, he’d write it; if it featured detectives from “mine,” then I’d write that. Normally, we’d have broken things down so well and so thoroughly, we’d get off the phone and four, five hours later, be emailing each other our pages. Then we’d edit each other, compile the script, and send it in. It was a helluva a lot of fun to do.
EN: It seems like a friendly process — were there no butting heads, battling egos, gnashings of teeth?
GR: Not once. I know, hard to believe. Thing was, we were just so delighted to be writing Central, y’know? What was there to argue about? We were on the same page about just about everything. We would certainly disagree about things, but we’d give and take and it was never anything that, at least for my part, made me want to throw up my hands and say to Hell with it.
EN: One for my curiosity: Did the Dead Robin story really get started with that Newsarama interview, or was it a storyline that you guys had discussed before?
GR: It really, honest to God, got started by Matt Brady mentioning it during an interview. And Ed and I loved the idea. He loved the idea of Robin in a chalk outline, and I loved the idea of the Teen Titans showing up in the MCU Squadroom in Central.
EN: That’s another great scene that mixes the fantastic with the street-level for full effect.
GR: That was why I loved it. The idea of Cyborg or Raven talking to Del Arrazio. Starfire walking into that room with her levitating breasts. How could we pass that up?
EN: And I think part of it came from the art too — the Titans were drawn more realistically (aside from Starfire’s levitating breasts), more gritty than readers are used to seeing them.
GR: Absolutely. The Titans arrived in Gotham, and the first thing that happened was they got coated with a layer of smog.
EN: Anyway…back to Renee! The first storyline that really focuses on Montoya is the one we talked a bit about earlier, “Half a Life.” Had your ideas about her character changed much since “Two Down”?
GR: She’d become much more sophisticated to me in the intervening issues. There was an issue of TEC that pushed things along, her birthday. And that issue, a lot of that issue was about disconnect and loneliness.
EN: Where Dent sends her flowers through Bruce Wayne….
GR: Yeah, that’s the story. There’s the scene where she’s stopped into her parent’s bodega on her morning jog. And her dad knocks her for turning into an old maid. And Renee looks out the window, and sees this couple on the street. It’s not until “Half a Life” that people could read that scene and really get it. So when “Half a Life” came along, I knew that story start to finish. If you notice, structurally, both Half a Life and TEC 747 start the same way.
EN: So you still had that ember of the story burning in the back of your mind when writing that issue?
GR: Oh, it was all very deliberate. There’s a reason “Half a Life” started with Central 6, and it wasn’t because neither Ed nor I had any other ideas. I figured this was going to be my only chance to tell the story, I’d damn well better seize it. But the two issues…each begin with one page establishing the “mystery” and then you cut to Renee, morning, going for a jog.
EN: They’re so similar structurally, that in going back and re-reading, I was surprised to find that the Detective story wasn’t told in Gotham Central. My memory had linked them together.
GR: Yeah, that was one of those TEC stories that Denny loved, and that Carlin hated, not because he didn’t like the story, but because he felt it didn’t belong in TEC. It was entirely a character piece. Not enough Batman. Thing was, there was no other place to tell that story at the time, because Central hadn’t been born yet.
EN: There’s interesting character development for Harvey Dent in that story as well. Bruce Wayne too, actually.
GR: Yeah. See, I love the relationship between Dent and Bruce, and the pathos in it. I think Two-Face is, frankly, the most successful Batman villain, even if he isn’t the most commercial. Because, you know, Dent is Bruce gone horribly, horribly wrong. Two identities warring with each other. And the pathos of Harvey Dent is that he’s a good, good man who is very, very broken. That was the heart of the Montoya/Dent thing.
Here’s this man who is so broken he can no longer make the decision to do Good or to do Evil. He has to default to a coin-toss. And that toss isn’t to decide “paper or plastic?” And it doesn’t decide, “knife or gun?” It decides, “murder you or rescue you.” And I liked the idea, as of “Two Down,” and then, into NML, that Montoya could somehow always reach out to Harvey, even when Two-Face was dominant. And that, if there was nothing Two-Face and Harvey agreed upon, they at least agreed upon Renee, how they felt about her, though each persona had their own reasons.
So, y’know, the idea for “Half of Life,” as I said, was born in “Two Down.” And this is in the introduction to the Half a Life trade, but the fact was, I was writing about the law of averages as much as anything else. Renee kept getting good tosses of the coin. She got a lucky streak. Eventually, that streak was going to break. “Half a Life” is about the streak breaking. And law of averages demands that all of those “good” tosses…they had to be balanced by a long run of “bad” ones.
EN: And every good flip showed that he had the capacity to do such extreme good. It’s not like helping old ladies across the street good, it’s risking death to save other people’s lives good. But then when the coin comes down wrong, the inverse is also true.
GR: Yeah, it’s absolutely extreme with him. Because if you’re (bad-flip) a villain, then you have the capacity to (good-flip) be a hero.
EN: Which flip is it that causes him to initiate the actions that rock Montoya’s existence in “Half a Life”? Because, as you said, it seems that each fragmented side of him has separate motives….
GR: You never see the flip that starts the chain. The story begins between TEC 747 and “Half a Life,” the moment that Two-Face — not Harvey — decides that he’s not going to be part of Harvey’s whining, pathetic, pining for Montoya. And the way to get the girl is to make the girl come to him. So he starts digging, and he hits a gold-mine. Figured she’d have a secret, but, WHOA! Turns out she’s just like him! She’s got a double-life! She’s two people! And he’s insane and he’s in love, and it doesn’t matter — like he says — that the double-life means she’s queer, that she absolutely is out of the running. He just sees that they’re the same.
EN: Do you remember what the initial reaction was, both from editorial and the readership, on Montoya’s forced coming out?
GR: Yeah. [In editorial] there was almost none. They only cared that the story was done well. There was no resistance at all to revealing that Montoya was a lesbian. Or to showing Montoya kissing Daria. I’m sure, in large part, it was because we were doing it in a book that was selling, charitably, 25K an issue, and we were outing a character that was barely on Burbank’s radar, if at all. But there was no difficulty in getting any of those issues approved.
The readership response was…mixed. Seemed mostly that the people who didn’t like it were people who weren’t actually reading the book. And there was a tempest in a teacup about whether or not it was appropriate to have a queer character in a “kids book.’ My feeling was, and still is, that 1) calling Central a kid’s book was disingenuous, 2) that kids who did read Central wouldn’t care, 3) and that comics needed to be representative of our world where and when they could, to the best of their ability.
Thing was, until Central, no one had ever used the word “lesbian” to identify a character in a DC comic. Not even Maggie Sawyer had been called gay. And we not only said it, we used “dyke” as a pejorative, as well. And when I was told that, until “Half a Life”, the word hadn’t been used, I was stunned. These days, y’know…there are people who are uncomfortable with the idea of homosexuality. And that’s their thing. And there are people who are always going to accuse writers and publishers of pandering when there’s a lesbian in a work. You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t.
At the end of the day, you have to believe the story has merit, and your only recourse is to tell the story as best you can. It’s interesting to me that those people who seem to hate the idea of a homosexual appearing in a comic never come up to me and say as much. But every convention I do, there’s always someone who puts Half a Life in front of me and tells me it meant something to them, or to someone they love.
EN: Do you get any vindication from winning the Harvey and the Eisner, and being nominated for the GLAAD Media Award?
GR: The Eisner was very vindicating. I actually didn’t know we’d won the Harvey for it. Or, if I did, I’d forgotten. But the Eisner, that mattered. Not so much because it vindicated the homosexuality — how can you? — but because it meant that enough people thought it was a good story they voted for it.
Funny story about the Eisner award. I was incredibly sick that San Diego con. I’d been in England three weeks earlier on a research trip, and I’d caught a horrible case of bronchitis that was getting worse and worse. I was having such intense coughing spells, I was passing out. I didn’t even realize how dangerously sick I’d become. I go up to accept the Eisner, and I’m trying desperately not to break into a fit of coughs. So I’m hoarse and whispering. I found out the next morning that half the room thought I had been moved to tears. Well…maybe not that funny.
EN: Ha! You should continue to perpetuate that myth. Build that image of yourself as an emotional, sensitive artist.
GR: Oh, Christ, I already have that image. Also that I’m a pinko homo-loving Mary Sue. Oh, I also have the reputation for shooting a man once in Reno just to watch him die.
Apparently, I’m a study in contradictions. Seriously.
EN: Gotham Central not only had Montoya, but as you said, Maggie Sawyer, another lesbian character. Was there a motive in bringing her in as a member of the cast? It never seemed like she was there to be paired with Renee, which I think was a good choice….
GR: We brought Maggie in as part of an exchange program, actually, that never worked out. The idea was to shift one character from the Superman books into the Batman books, and one the other way around. I forget who the Superman editors were supposed to get in trade. But you can tell how well it worked out, because Maggie really only ever appeared in Central. There’s a TEC story about her moving to Gotham, if I remember. But that’s it.
In its own way, it was unfortunate, because it really did seem that the GCPD was breeding lesbians. I’d always wanted to do a story about the Gay and Lesbian Officers Association in Gotham. Never got around to that. But I wanted to show that, yes, there were gay men in Gotham City, too!
EN: Frederic Wertham said that decades ago!
GR: He was talking about only two of them. And bringing Wertham into the conversation is the equivalent of invoking the Hitler rule in a flame war.
EN: Alright, alright. I’ll back down.
GR: Yeah, you better. Remember what I said about Reno? All true.
EN: On the other hand, I think Maggie’s presence worked because it played against people’s expectations — Two lesbians in an office together? Guess who’s hooking up? — and I think Maggie played an interesting role for Renee during Half a Life.
GR: Oh, yeah. One of my favorite scenes in Half a Life is the scene with Maggie and Renee in Maggie’s office. I was very proud of Maggie as a character in that scene. The line about the closet opening only one way, and what Renee does next she has to live with for the rest of her life…that was a line I got from a friend of mine who had been through something similar. Thing was, we had backstory for EVERY detective in that squad. Some of them had pages and pages of bio, and you only ever heard or saw the barest snippets of their backgrounds, where they were from, who they were off the job.
EN: I also think it’s interesting though that Renee rejects that advice at first — her rejection seems like a statement that not all lesbian experiences are the same. It didn’t matter that their sexual preferences were the same, their lives were very different.
GR: Well, the advice is good advice, though Renee’s initial response was just as valid. Very different backgrounds, very different people. Very different characters. Something that not everyone was willing to acknowledge. It goes to another pet peeve of mine — people want to identify the character as GAY, and what they don’t understand, or what they fail to acknowledge —
EN: Neither Renee or Maggie can be reduced to just the characteristic of their sexuality.
GR: Exactly. It’s like saying that Steel is BLACK. It’s an element of character. That does not a character make. What makes Montoya who she is is a combination of so many different things, and that’s true for EVERY character. Superman isn’t Superman because of heat vision or flight. He’s as much who he is because of Ma and Pa and Smallville and Lana and Lois and Lex…and the list goes on and on.
[We take a break at this point and return, later in the week — Greg’s wife, Jenn Van Meter’s birthday as a matter of fact. Happy late birthday!]
EN: Did you ever know Valerie D’Orazio when she was an assistant editor at DC?
GR: I don’t recall the name. When would this have been?
EN: I’m not sure off the top of my head when her tenure there would have been. Anyway, she now writes a blog that discusses, among other things, gender issues in comics, and she linked to the last segment of our interview….
GR: Oh yes?
EN: And she brought up a point about separation of homosexuality in comics: “You know, aside from the question of whether this level of nudity and sex is appropriate for a non-‘mature readers’ book, I wouldn’t mind it — if gay male characters in mainstream comics were afforded the same level of frankness and depiction of sensuality.”
GR: That’s a very fair point.
EN: And I thought that if it wasn’t too much of a fastball at your head to start out with, I might ask your thoughts on that.
GR: No, I think it’s a very fair, and very valid point. The fact is, lesbianism is considered more commercially palatable. Having gay male couples seen “coupling” is a much harder sell. I’m not sure it’s something I would argue with, frankly.
If the underlying question, however, is “would you have written Ron Montoya in the same situation dealing with the same things and responding in the same manner?” the answer is yes. Would I have “gotten away” with showing it? I don’t know. Let’s remember, I didn’t get away with showing Montoya in bed with Zalika.
Flip side — there are multiple points in Central where we see Montoya with Daria, and it’s clear the two of them are in a committed partnership, with all that entails. But in the main, yes, lesbianism is considered more “acceptable,” and the reasons for that have been debated and discussed over and over again.
EN: Is there any “solution” you can foresee? Or will this just be a matter of society’s perceptions changing over time? (That may be a stupid question. Feel free to call me out if I ask stupid questions.)
GR: No, it’s not a stupid question at all. Look, I think comics need to be more representative across the board. I think we need to see more ethnicity, more diversity, more cultural differences. The way we do that is by forging ahead, and taking the small victories where we can. There are people who think this “agenda” is a bad thing. I don’t. Literature is supposed to reflect our world, even if it’s literature that deals with men from Krypton or small furry blue creatures from Alpha Centauri.
We are at a point, culturally, in the West, at least, where these things are “out of the box,” now, and despite the cries and protests of certain elements in our society, I don’t see them being closed away again. Ten years ago, we didn’t have this diversity. Ten years from now, I’m hoping people will look at today’s books and find them charmingly naive. But, at least in regards to homosexuality and its portrayal, there’s no going back on that. The whole movement has become mainstream — why else would it be valid to run for President on a platform of protecting Americans from married gay terrorists?
I’m not sure what else I can add. Clearly, I can only speak for myself. I suppose I should add that, at least where Montoya’s concerned, I try always to write her as a person first and foremost. Her sexuality is an element of that, of course, and we’re in a place societally where that has to be acknowledged, and where it “matters” more than it should. If she was straight and had been bedding boys, would DC have pulled the pages? Hell yes. So it’s not an issue of editorial discrimination, at least.
EN: Speaking of diversity, and getting back to Gotham Central, the officers of the MCU are widely diverse — lesbians, Hispanics, African Americans…psychics. And from what we see of other departments in the book, this seems to be the exception rather than the rule — almost as if they’d fled or been ostracized from other departments and wound up with the MCU. Was this a conscious effort on the part of you and your collaborators?
GR: It was very conscious on Ed’s and my part to make the MCU as diverse as possible. It was never intended to make the MCU specifically an exception, but remember that when we’re writing a book with “regular characters,” they’re the ones who get design sheets. When you write a story where you need to throw in two or three officers at the scene, unless you’re very clear in the script, you’ll end up with whatever the penciller or editor or colorist ultimately decides. These days, I try to make sure that any “crowd” description I write has something to the effect of, “please make the crowd ethnically diverse.”
EN: I noticed that in your scripts.
GR: Again, it’s just me trying to make sure the books are more representative of the real world.
EN: Here’s another diversity question that we’ve touched on a little before — when folks think of the comics you’ve written, they think of mostly the strong female characters you’re affiliated with — Carrie Stetko, Tara Chace, Renee, Wonder Woman, Elektra…the list goes on. Are you drawn to female characters as a writer?
GR: I didn’t used to be, but these days, yes, quite obviously.
EN: What brought that about?
GR: It started with Whiteout, I think, and then really crystallized for me when I was writing Shooting at Midnight.
EN: That’s Bridgett…um…Logan? Right?
GR: Yeah, that was Bridgett’s novel. That was a very daunting book for me to write, because I knew going into it I was going to write first-person, and that I had to get it right. Bridgett couldn’t just be a guy with tits, she had to be believable as a woman, and that lead to me really sitting down and thinking long and hard about what I needed to do to write that honestly. Because that’s so clearly not my experience.
Atticus is much closer to me than Bridgett was. Bridgett was an Irish-Catholic Bronx girl ex-junkie PI. So I was, uh…out of my comfort zone, shall we say? And I think that was when I realized a couple things about my writing, and about the dividends I found in writing female characters.
First and foremost, I think you get a dramatic goldmine in putting female characters into traditionally male scenarios. Because gender enters into EVERYTHING. There’s just no way it can’t. It’s the way we’re wired as human beings. So one situation presented to a male character, that’s an entirely different situation for a female character, in many cases. That changes the baseline, for lack of a better analogue. And from that, you can layer the specific elements of character over it, and develop the response to the situation from a “character” level, if that makes sense. But issues of sex, sexuality, and gender have always been of interest to me, and that’s hardly a surprise to anyone who’s read my work.
Now, if you’re asking do I have a preference, writing female characters versus male characters? I’d have to say I prefer writing women at this point, but only slightly. In the end, it comes down to the character, not the gender, you know?
EN: It goes back to what you said before that gender, sexuality, religion etc. are only aspects of a person, not the singular defining quality.
GR: That’s very much the job, for me. I’m a character writer, as opposed to a “plot” writer, I suppose. I cannot approach a story without knowing the character(s) the story is about, and what their conflict is, what their struggle will be. Eric Trautmann, who’s writing Checkmate with me right now, y’know…he comes at it from completely the opposite perspective. He’s got to know plot before he starts working on character. Me, I want to know what the character’s story will be, and then I want to build the story to serve it.
Because, to me, the character is the engine. How Batman responds to Two-Face is a character issue. And his response versus, say, Superman’s, versus, again, Montoya’s…those are all character-based actions. And so Two-Face will respond depending on the action, and so on, and so on. That is, in large part, how I construct story. That’s not to say that there isn’t a “story” idea, i.e., a corrupt CSU technician in Gotham steals a crucial bit of evidence and forces a case to collapse, etc.
EN: Do you ever find the two conflicting? Plots requiring out-of-character actions, for instance?
GR: Well, not conflicting, so to speak. I try very hard to keep from ever writing someone “out of character.” And I’m lucky, because for the most part, I get to dictate the stories I want to write, which means I’m somewhat inured from editorial or whoever asking for a story where X does Y. But I know that when I get approached about writing stories where character X is supposed to do something wildly out of character, I tend to be very circumspect.
It’s one of the reasons why I passed on Amazons Attack, frankly. It seemed so out of character to me, I couldn’t imagine making it work. So I passed on the job.
EN: I avoided reading that one, somehow. Perhaps luck, from what I hear.
GR: I’m not pointing fingers. I use it to illustrate the kind of thing I mean. I had an idea how to write that story, and I proposed it, and was told that wasn’t what they wanted, at which point I left the project.
EN: So do you have a second-opinion source when you write female characters? I know that if I wrote a P.I. novel told from a first-person female P.O.V., I’d have my wife working overtime checking up to make sure I’d been as authentic as possible….
GR: Oh yes. I use Jennifer all the time, of course. She’s my best reader, and she’s my best friend, and she’s a hell of a writer. When I wrote Shooting, I spent a lot of time talking to both Jennifer and a friend of ours, Daria Penta, who was very much the physical model for Bridgett. I remember working out the character bio and sitting down with the two of them and, essentially, playing twenty questions. And they asked me questions about Bridgett, and I found myself knowing a lot of the answers, and other times, no clue.
I remember Daria asked, “Does Bridgett have bad periods?”
And I kinda blinked at her. “Wha?”
And she said, “I cramp up so bad I spend three days in bed wishing I was dead. Does that happen to Bridgett?” That was a lightbulb moment, you know? Because even if it never entered into the story at any point, it was one of the details that told me legions about who the character was. Not something guys ever think about.
There was another moment in that novel, actually, that was just as crucial. There’s a bit where Bridgett is going to see the Big Bad Guy, and BBG has a Thug who has been, shall we say, offensive in his treatment of women. And before Bridgett speaks to BBG, she’s searched by Thug. Again, I was talking to a friend — this one, Jerry, is my technical advisor in addition to being one of my dearest friends — and he’s been through these kinds of things. And I made the comment to him that I couldn’t imagine Thug not taking the opportunity to cop a feel, given the situation Bridgett’s in and what’s transpired in the novel at that point. And he said, “Hell yeah, he would.” And I really struggled with that. It was a moment where I knew what the story demanded “realistically,” but I wasn’t sure I was willing to do that to Bridgett.
In the end, I decided that not doing it would have been cheating, it would’ve been me going easy on Bridgett because she was female. I couldn’t do that. So I wrote the scene, and Thug cops a feel, and it’s vile and its violating, but it was the right scene. I don’t think a reader has ever commented to me on it, either. I think I made it a much bigger thing to me than it actually was. But again, it was a turning point. I realized I had to play just as rough with the female characters I wrote as I did with the male characters.
EN: So here it’s true too that the thing that matters most is “staying true” to the characters, in this case, the Thug.
GR: Yeah, it was entirely a question of character. But the thing is, I could’ve dodged it, or written around it, or soft-pedaled it. And it’s not as if I wrote it in lurid detail — in fact, it goes past so fast it’s easy to miss. It was committing to doing it that was crucial, at least for me, for my growth as a writer. And I really do believe that it’s sexist writing when we go “easy” on female characters because they’re female. It’s just as sexist as singling them out and brutalizing them because they’re female. I try to be an equal opportunity bastard to every character I write, male or female.
Thing is, drama requires the characters struggle. And the struggle has to be worthy of them, it can’t be an easy thing. So, yeah, you’ve got to play hardball, and you’ve got to be…what’s the word I want…damn…equitable isn’t it, but, y’know what I’m trying to say. “Fair and balanced.”
EN: Is it a different thing to write from a female point of view, and a specifically lesbian point of view? Did you have to find alternate sources of research when working on Montoya’s story?
GR: It was much like writing Shooting, again. I went to those people I knew who were queer and whose eye I could trust, and I ran a lot of what I was thinking, in regards to story, past them. And I had the benefit of Joan Hilty at DC, who’s gay, and who is also an excellent editor, and she was kind enough to read the scripts, as well. But it was much the same approach, you know, of trying to be honest to the characters and the emotions involved.
EN: I’ll be honest — one of the reasons I’m interested in this line of questioning is that when I write, my characters usually wind up being male, Southern, around my age — it’s hard to step outside that sort of comfort zone of familiarity, but it seems to be something that you’ve done well so often that you keep coming back to it.
GR: Well, again, I think we’re talking about the nature of the craft, here, now. As a writer, we’re obligated to try and make the next thing better than the last thing. And that requires moving outside the comfort zone in many cases. It requires trying something new and then failing. Being willing to fail, at the least.
I think about Hemingway a lot in this regards, you know? He used to take months to write his short stories at the start. And by the time he was done, he’d be writing them over the course of afternoon, or so they say. Because he’d figured it “out”, and I think that’s why some of the later shorts aren’t nearly as strong as some of the earlier ones, the ones from In Our Time, for instance. I could be totally high, of course.
Thing is, I believe good writing must be emotionally resonant writing. And that’s not as difficult a trick as it sounds, though it is by no means an easy thing to do. But there are certain universal truths, as I’ve said. And it’s in conveying those universal truths through the unique perspective of “character” that we get good story. At least, that’s one approach, and it’s an approach that’s served me pretty well.
EN: All good advice, I think. Nothing I’d disagree with.
GR: It’s not an easy thing to learn how to do well. Done wrong, it’s ham-handed and polemic, rather than moving and engaging.
EN: And this is the sort of thing that’s behind your preference of developing character to plot — this opportunity to convey the human experience through a unique set of eyes….
GR: Exactly. I think, going back to a previous question, that’s why I’ve been writing women so much of late. It’s a very different POV than my own, obviously. But there’s more to it than that, of course. I like women, and I think I’ve always female-identified more than male-identified, for whatever reasons that may be the case. And yes, I know the “I like women” line is just begging to be pulled out of context.
EN: Cut them off at the pass!
GR: But, growing up, I had far more female friends than male ones. These days, I have more male friends than female ones. So maybe it’s developmental, as much as anything else.
EN: So do you think that, as a writer who values distilling these universal truths through new perspectives, you sort of sought out this female POV as a new perspective for yourself?
GR: With Shooting at Midnight it was a very deliberate choice. I’d written my first novel, Keeper, and that had been a struggle, and had been revised and rewritten over and over, but it hadn’t been an unpleasant experience. The second book, Finder, nearly killed me. That one was written stem to stern three times.
For people who know the book, there’s an example I give that always stuns them. Which is this: The SAS weren’t a part of the story until the third draft. That was second-novel syndrome, and it was to be expected, I think, but still…that one was pure misery.
When I sat down to write Smoker, then, I was very careful about my approach. And the book wrote like a dream. I barely broke a sweat. I think I had one revision to the final manuscript, and that was all. And the thing was, I finished the book, and I knew it was a good, solid, suspense novel. I knew it. So the response to that was to try something very much harder, and that was Shooting at Midnight. And it was MUCH harder. Far harder than I could’ve imagined. That one was a real struggle.
EN: But it sounds as though ultimately, it was worth it.
GR: I think it’s one of my best books, honestly, and I think that’s a direct result of the effort put into it. Mind you, when I talk about “best” and “worst” and things like that, I’m speaking solely from my own POV and I’m speaking solely about them as literary/artistic endeavors, not as commercial ones.
EN: Is it difficult as a writer to make that distinction? Especially if the artistic achievements don’t turn out to be the most financially successful? Maybe what I’m saying is…how do you deal with that struggle between making art and making money?
GR: Oh, hell…poorly, I’d say. I’m lucky; I make enough to provide for myself and my family, and I’m very more fortunate in that, since I’ve started getting published regularly, I’ve never had to truly scrape and scrabble for gigs.
EN: I realize this is another of those huge, vast questions, and there are a lot of different ways to go with it.
GR: But I don’t know how to be a “commercial” writer or an “artistic” writer. I just write the way I write, the way that works for me. And for me, there is a definite need to find artistic merit in the work. I cannot approach writing as a solely commercial endeavor. I just can’t, it’s not in me. Blame Vassar College and the Liberal Arts education, or parents that read and discussed what they read every day, or my wife who was a PhD candidate, or whatever. But I just can’t separate the two. In fact, I’d argue that even those writers who are solely interested in “commercial” work are creating art. They may be creating bad art, but it’s still art.
But when we talk about art, we run the risk of ignoring the, potentially, more crucial question, which is story. At the end of the day, my job is to tell stories. Ideally, to tell compelling, engaging, interesting stories that leave the reader with some sort of satisfaction when they’re finished.
EN: I will hesitate from asking, “Greg…can you define art?” You’ve got me scratching my chin and thinking all philosophically about literature. When we should be talking about Crispus Allen.
GR: Yeah, we do seem to have discovered an amazingly consistent ability to digress.
EN: As long as you and I and the readers at home find this stuff interesting, I don’t care so much.
GR: Well, I can’t speak for the readers, but I don’t mind talking about it.
EN: So…Crispus Allen. You created, or co-created him, correct?
GR: I did, in fact, create him…if you can say that creating a thinly-veiled clone of Andre Braugher’s Pembleton from Homicide: Life on the Street is creating a character.
EN: We’ll come back to that in a sec…first…For years, one of the few truly definable characteristics of Montoya was that she was Harvey Bullock’s partner. But that changed with the aftermath of Officer Down. What does having Allen as a partner provide as far as a chance for development for Renee?
GR: Well, we knew the relationship between Renee and Harvey at that point. It was status quo, and it didn’t really reveal anything new about either of them. Bringing Cris in allowed both he and Montoya to be further fleshed out in a fairly organic, easy way. And the trope of a new partner was good, solid cop-story drama, so that was an obvious benefit. So it served both of them, because both of them had to get to know one another, and trust one another, and in doing so, we learned about both of them.
Then there’s the bonus that Allen was an outsider. Renee’s born and raised in Gotham. Cris isn’t. And in that, there was opportunity to further show how different Gotham is as an environment. One of the biggest conflicts I have in the Batman mythology is the justification, if that makes sense. If Gotham is so corrupt, Batman is required, then isn’t Batman a failure if, after ten years, it’s still just as corrupt?
EN: If not more so.
GR: Well, there’s an answer, of sorts. And the answer is that Gotham is a character, too. Gotham does things in Gotham’s way, if that makes sense. And one of the things Cris served to do was to show how different Gotham City was from the rest of the DCU, how what works in San Francisco or Keystone or Metropolis doesn’t work in Gotham.
EN: If Condiment King is still out causing trouble…Batman should probably re-evaluate his career decisions.
GR: Indeed. Condiment King. Sigh.
EN: Don’t say anything more about Condiment King, or the Dixonverse will rise up and destroy you….
GR: Love the Condiment King! Love him! More mustard, please!
EN: Comics seem to be a good place for developing “living” cities. Like Hub. Like the city in Transmetropolitan.
GR: Place as character is another one of those things that interests me as a writer. Back to Cris…
EN: Oh yeah, Cris….
GR: …I think that’s probably the biggest dividend we got out of introducing him. Because Renee was Gotham born and bred, she breathed it. She knew the city inside and out, and she understood the need for and the impact of Batman. And Cris absolutely didn’t, that just wasn’t something he understood at the start. And one can argue, I suppose, that he never really understood Gotham by the time he was done, and that was one of the things that lead to his death. He tried to defeat an inherent corruption, something that was systemic in Gotham, and the result was that it destroyed him.
EN: I read in an interview that you knew Cris was going to die from the start of the series?
GR: Yeah. It was a fait accomplit, I believe, as they say on the Continent.
EN: Was it all because of his role as an outsider? And was the trigger man always going to be Jim Corrigan?
GR: Well, Corrigan entered into the scenario relatively late. He came in as a favor to Dan, who’d asked Ed and me to include a “red-haired character in the GCPD named Jim Corrigan” to get a little Spectre interest going. I wasn’t certain at the start how Cris was going to die, but I knew there was a story in Montoya losing her partner, and after “Half a Life” that crystallized for me as the bottom of her downward spiral, so to speak.
Corrigan actually appears for the first time — or at least is mentioned — in Central 12 or 13, I think. So he was on the scene a full 12 issues before he became a major player, and some 28 issues before we find out just what a piece of shit he is. Oh, and Dan had, if I remember correctly, asked that Corrigan be a “bad cop.”
EN: So were you in on the process that ultimately led to Cris becoming the new Spectre?
GR: Yes, very much so. That was another story I was supposed to write and didn’t. In this case, it was lack of time. But the mini that introduced Cris as Spectre, that was based in part on a story I’d proposed. They went entirely a different way with the ending that I’d have gone, though.
EN: Care to give away your proposed ending?
GR: Cris, as Spectre, would struggle with the fact that he now had to kill his son. And he would finally resolve to do so. And, as with Abraham and Isaac, the Angel of Mercy would appear at the penultimate moment and say, “God says don’t.” The question, of course, is one of faith and obedience. Not one of vengeance. Once Cris was willing to kill his son for God, he was truly the Spectre.
But having him actually do it…I think that was a mistake. I think that removed the thing that made him compelling, and made him human. That would’ve, incidentally, allowed us to show interplay between the Angel of Vengeance and the Angel of Mercy, which, I think, would’ve been very cool.
EN: It’s interesting that both Renee and Cris have made this transition from their previous roles as civilians in a super-hero world into…well, I hesitate to call the Question super, and I hesitate to call the Spectre a hero…but they’re definitely more than civilians now. Will they be meeting up any time soon?
GR: I’m toying with it, actually. There’s the opportunity to tell a story in 2008 that might be a good place to do it. I’ve got a couple of ideas re: Montoya post Crime Bible that Siglain and I have discussed, as well. We’ll see. The schedule — this past week, in fact — went into flux something fierce, so all of the sudden I’m looking at opportunities to tell stories that I didn’t think I’d be having.
But, you know, you touched on something that we actually had long discussion about. Turning Cris, who was one of the few well-realized African Americans in the DCU, and turning him into the Spectre, that wasn’t something we did lightly. In the same way that handing the Question’s mantle to Montoya wasn’t something that was decided willy-nilly. Part of what really influenced the decision, in both cases, was that the DCU is a super-hero universe. It’s a universe about people with extraordinary powers, people in extraordinary, fantastic situations. It is a universe where people throw punches like most people throw peanut shells, ie, with reckless abandon.
EN: I hadn’t thought of that aspect…Cris as an African-American becoming literally white.
GR: Oh, we did. You wouldn’t believe how we struggled with that, actually. And with the fact that, in a real world where African American males receive very little in the way of positive representation as family men, etc, we were going to take him from his family. But the flip side was that we took one of the few black men in the DCU, and we made him, arguably, the most powerful being in all of the DCU.
EN: Do you think that Renee’s growing up in Gotham with Batman running around the rooftops of her neighborhood helps at all with her transition into this non-civilian world?
GR: Not really. The thing to remember is that there’s no one in the DCU that doesn’t know Superman’s out there. She knew someone could fly and was bulletproof at a very young age. As an aside, I’ve always wondered if there wasn’t a disproportionate number of toddlers throwing themselves off rooftops pretending to fly in a world where there are LOTS of people who actually can fly. I’m not sure Renee even now thinks of herself as a “mask,” in the same way that I doubt Charlie ever saw himself as one (speaking for the DCU, not the animated).
EN: So we won’t be seeing Renee joining the Justice League anytime soon?
GR: …Not joining, no… I know that Grant’s using her in Final, at least briefly.
EN: So she might be rubbing elbows with them, at least.
GR: I can’t comment, honestly. I know what I’m planning; I can’t speak for anyone else.
EN: I guess the only thing more impressive than almost being choked to death by Black Adam and surviving is almost being choked to death by Darkseid….
GR: Yeah…not sure she’d dodge that bullet, frankly. Tell you one thing I do want to write, but I don’t know when/if I’ll have the chance.
EN: Fire away!
GR: I’d love to write the next meeting between Black Adam and the Quesiton. I’ve got some thoughts on that one.
EN: I think that book would sell. I tell you what, you pitch it, and I’ll go ahead and pencil in our future interview sessions.
EN: Earlier, you referenced Homicide, and I wanted to ask how you dealt with the tropes of police procedurals while ensuring a unique product with GC. Was the presence of Batman in the background enough?
GR: Kind of. Batman in the background was the engine of the book, of course, because you always knew he was there, and you always knew what that meant. Ed and I approached the book very much as a procedural, a cross between Hill Street and Homicide, with the added complication of Batman and his Rogues Gallery. And that’s one hell of a complication.
There’s a bit in “Half a Life,” I think, early on…a case gets dropped on the MCU because the detective working it in Larceny has had a snitch tell him Catwoman was responsible. And I liked that bit, because I liked how it built the world — the mere mention of Penguin or Catwoman, these were to be expected, to such an extent that they became excuses.
EN: You guys also set the tone right away with the officer being frozen to death by Mr. Freeze.
GR: Oh, yes. That was all written by Ed, by the way, and he did a masterful job with that opening. You combine it with Michael’s art, and it’s so realistic…and suddenly it’s a nightmare, because there’s literally a monster in front of these two men. That was the book in a nutshell.
EN: Well, it was a shame to see it end. Like I said, I consider it one of the best series of the past decade.
GR: That means a lot, and I appreciate you saying it. It ended where it had to, I think, given everything that was happening at the time. And, as I said at the time, I really didn’t feel comfortable continuing the book without Ed’s participation.
EN: When I re-read it for this interview, I’d only planned to read Montoya-specific issues, and only those written by you. But I wound up reading the whole thing, issue one to issue forty, in a pair of sittings.
GR: Heh. Yeah, I’ve been rereading them in my free time since we started chatting about the series, trying to refresh myself. I think it holds up pretty well.
EN: Any chance we’ll see Montoya drop by to see the other officers on her shift?
GR: She’s back in Gotham in CB 3. It is…awkward. But she won’t be able to stay away from Gotham for long. There are too many ties to the city, and they’ll keep pulling her back.
EN: Oh yeah! I should know that….
GR: Too many of her questions lead home, just like they did for Charlie.
EN: Well, I think we should leave the readers at home on that tantalizing note.
GR: Heh. Fine by me.
EN: If all goes well, we’ll be talking about Crime Bible in person this week.
GR: That would be very cool. Hopefully, I’ll have 5 finished by the time you’re here.