We got a chance to sit down with writer and creative director W. Haden Blackman recently, while enjoying a skiing trip on Mars. Here’s how it all went down:
Q: How did you and J. H. Williams III first come to be creating Batwoman tales together?
A: As with all these types of things, it was a lot of being at the right place at the right time. Jim and I have known each other for more than ten years, and have worked on pitches together off-and-on for most of that time. Jim did covers for one of my first writing gigs (a 3-issue Star Wars limited series called “Crossbones” for Dark Horse), and later we collaborated on a Hellboy short story for Weird Tales. We also put together a few different creator-owned pitches, but we were both always committed to other projects or companies. After Jim finished up his Detective Comics run with Greg Rucka, he and I successfully pitched DC on a stand-alone limited series featuring Batwoman, which in turn led to us being asked to take on the ongoing series (a modified version of our limited series pitch will actually become Arc 3 of the ongoing).
Q: Can you demystify the pitch process for us a little bit?
A: Every company is different in terms of their submission process — some won’t even take unsolicited submissions, for example, while others have very specific rules for format and content. So do your research by reading up on each publisher’s submission process, which I believe are on their web sites. But, even if a publisher does accept submissions, it’s still a huge uphill battle to get it actually read or looked at if you just send it in cold. It will end up on a pile somewhere. Your best bet is to attend conventions and try to meet people — editors, other creators, and other aspiring creators. If you’re an artist, have as many people look at your portfolio as possible, and take their feedback seriously. If you’re a writer, it’s a much harder hill to climb — it’s easier for an editor to flip through a portfolio in a five-minute meeting than it is to read your 3-page synopsis and provide intelligent feedback. My advice for writers is to find an artist who is willing to illustrate a few pages of story for you, and use that as your calling card, and have any pitches boiled down to a few lines that you can tell someone in less than a minute (basically, the “elevator pitch” mentality from film). For either writers or artists, you should be focused on sequential story-telling (rather than pin-ups or long, detailed proposals or character bios) and using the medium to its fullest. With some luck, you might get asked to submit a pitch for a specific character or title. In terms of our pitches to DC, we usually work directly with our editor (right now, the insightful Mike Marts). Our proposals are pretty detailed at this stage: a brief “premise” that describes the high-concept in one or two sentences; a one paragraph overview that outlines the beginning, middle and end of the story, with emphasis on where the main characters start and where they end up (emotionally, psychologically, etc.); an issue-by-issue breakdown that provides the big beats for each issue (often as bullet points); and then descriptions of any new characters.
Q: Colonel Jacob Kane is one of the more intriguing characters in all of DC Comics (not to take anything away from Kate Kane, mind you). What more can you tell us about the Colonel that most casual readers of the Batwoman tales wouldn’t know about?
A: Jacob is one of my favorite characters in the book because, at the end of the day, I think he feels like his most important role is that of father, but he’s totally blown it… One of the major storylines in Arc 2 revolves around Jacob trying to deal with that failure. He has guilt over what happened with Beth/Alice, and how that destroyed his relationship with Kate, but there’s something deeper there, something that he hasn’t admitted to anyone yet – including himself – that will come out as the arc progresses. I also think Jacob has an internal need – whether he knows it or not – to be surrounded by strong women, and this need drives him to make a big decision in Arc 2. Oh, and the D.E.O. thinks he might be Batman…
Q: You mention that the D.E.O. thinks that Jacob Kane might be Batman. What did you mean by “D.E.O.”?
A: The D.E.O. is the Department of Extranormal Operations, run by Director Bones. The D.E.O.’s mission is learning everything they can about the superheroes, especially the masked vigilantes. In Arc 1 of Batwoman, Cameron Chase is a D.E.O. agent assigned to finding out Batwoman’s real identity. Chase has her own issues with superheroes, mostly due to her background (her father was a vigilante killed by his nemesis). At one point in Arc 1, Bones reveals that the D.E.O. has been keeping tabs on Jacob Kane as part of their ongoing investigation into Batman, whom they would love unmask.
Q: There’s a buzz about the Flamebird character, and many readers are wondering “will she or won’t she?” Here’s your big chance to set the record straight. Will Flamebird become Batwoman’s sidekick?
A: All I can say about this is that we have two rules when working on this series. The first is “There is no status quo.” So, things are always changing and evolving. Things happen in Arc 1 that will change Batwoman, Bette, and others. The second rule is: “Turn it on its ear.” This refers back to any tropes of vigilante comics. We’re trying to take all of those, and put some sort of unique spin or take on them. Obviously, the sidekick thing is one of those tropes, so if we include it, we’re going to try to do it in a way readers might not expect.
Q: What is the wildest thing you ever witnessed at a comic convention?
A: About ten years ago, someone tried to throw a rave for SDCC attendees. I remember walking in and seeing like three people on the dance floor, turned around and walked out… So, I guess I haven’t been going to the right parties.
Q: By any chance, was Kieron Gillen one of those three people on the dance floor at SDCC?
A: Not unless he’s a sixteen-year old skater.
Q: When you’re not busy writing, do you find the time to enjoy reading other comicbooks? If so, what are some of your current favorites?
A: I still read a ton of stuff. From the New 52, I’m enjoying Swamp Thing, Animal Man, Wonder Woman, and Frankenstein. On the Marvel front, I keep up with X-Factor and a few other X-titles, along with far too many Avengers books. Hellboy and all the spin-offs and Astro City also make it onto my pull list. My personal favorites right now are Journey Into Mystery, Fables, and Kick-Ass 2. I’m also finishing up Terry Moore’s incredible Echo, and re-reading volume 1 of the Teen Titans omnibus.
Q: We see that you read as many comicbooks as we do! And it’s very cool that you mentioned Echo, by Terry Moore. The very notion of a 21-mile supercollider that could destroy our planet is wild to think about. What is it about Echo that you find most interesting?
A: First and foremost, I just love how he handles characters and character interactions. For me, the story is less about the sci-fi elements, and more about how those elements impact the characters, who feel real to me. It reminds me of Spielberg — especially E.T. and Close Encounters.
Q: What are three essential things that every strong story needs, from a writer’s standpoint?
A: There’s no recipe or formula, but for me, it always comes back to the characters… I prefer stories in which the character has a strong and clear desire, has some real flaws, and is relatable on some level (if not always likable).
Q: What inspires you lately?
A: Everything. My family, music, someone else’s incredible work, the asshole who just cut me off in traffic…
Q: What advice would you offer to someone who has the dreaded writer’s block?
A: Stop making excuses. There’s no such thing as “writer’s block” unless someone has literally shut off the part of your brain that allows you to form words. If you’re struggling with a specific story, then write about something else – even what’s on your desk or out your window, or answer questions to an e-mail interview. Just write. And remember that getting something down on paper is only part of the job – the bulk of good writing is good editing.
Q: You’re stranded on a ship at sea. What’s your plan?
A: Build a radio out of fish.
Q: Once you’ve built your fish radio, what’s your plan?
A: See if I can get any NFL games.
Q: You’re a fierce barbarian warrior in the year 400 AD. What’s your weapon of choice?
A: A pen.
Q: What is your favorite city in the whole wide world, and why?
A: San Francisco. Aside from being a beautiful and diverse city, its people are generally very progressive and accepting. Plus, there’s a ridiculous number of amazing restaurants.
Q: Are you more of a hamburger kind of a guy, or a hot dog kind of a guy?
A: Neither. Chicken is my protein of choice.
Q: Do you have a favorite professional sports team?
A: Whichever teams my fantasy football players are on.
Q: Tell us three of your favorite films?
A: Alien, Reservoir Dogs, Jaws.
Q: Tell us three of your favorite bands?
A: Today? Spinerette, HorrorPops, Brandi Carlile.
Q: Tell us three of your favorite writers?
A: Pete Dexter, three times over.
Q: What did you accomplish yesterday?
A: Jim and I put the finishing touches on the script for Batwoman #12.
Q: What are some of your predictions for the comicbook industry in the years to come?
A: More experimentation with digital story-telling and distribution. Somewhere, someone is going to break through with this, and comics are going to explode again.
Q: What’s next for Batwoman readers after the Hydrology 5-issue arc?
A: Arc 2 picks up right after Arc 1. It’s a bit experimental in terms of story-telling, and tracks six different characters and storylines. We introduce some new characters, including several villains, and continue to raise the stakes for Kate in both her civilian and vigilante lives. In Arc 1, we’ve tried to infuse horror into a vigilante comic; in Arc 2, we’re adding some James Bond to the mix. The amazing Amy Reeder is coming on board for those six issues, while Jim gets cracking on Arc 3. In terms of action, that third arc is going to feel like a big, epic fantasy film interspersed with some quieter moments.
You can check out more about W. Haden Blackman on his site: http://www.hadenblackman.com