Interview with BATMAN INCORPORATED Artist Chris Burnham
Michael Moccio ’16 / Emertainment Monthly Editor
Here it is! The long awaited interview with the accomplished artist of Batman Incorporated that you’ve all heard me tell you so much about. Chris was a pleasure to interview–he was candid and straightforward and I’m glad I had the opportunity to connect with him. You should all really check out his work, as his art, especially with the most recent Batman Incorporated issue has been amazing.
Emertainment Monthly: When you were young, were you interested in comics? Who was your favorite hero?
Chris Burnham: It’s basically all I ever wanted to do. At about six or seven, I found out [comics] were a thing, so… it was a lifelong ambition. The Avengers were a favorite team of mine for a long time—I was into Captain America and a big Batman fan, too. Right around the movie, everyone caught Batman fever—it hit pretty hard. But after Knightfall, with Batman getting his back broken, there were like a hundred different Batman titles and I kinda fell off of it. I only got back into Batman probably right around when—I guess exactly when–Grant Morrison took it back over. He brought me back into the Batfold and now I draw for him. And that’s kinda cool.
How did you develop your artistic style?
Trial and error, I guess. Just about every new project I’ve tried a different style, using different tools—whatever seems appropriate. The more detailed I got, the more people liked it. When I did Officer Downe, I was very, very detailed. People really liked that, and when I got to Batman, I said, “I guess this is what I’m doing!” Honestly, if I would’ve been more successful with my faux David Lloyd / Milton Caniff style, that’s what I would be drawing today. But no one wanted to pay me for that. They want to pay me for the detailed stuff.
What’s the process going from text to art? When you get the script how do you make decisions and turn it into pictures?
Well, I read the script a number of times. I start doing little thumbnail drawings. I figure out panel orientation: which panel has the biggest, the most exciting thing going on? Which panel is inherently horizontal? Which panel is inherently vertical? I make sure they all constantly relate to each other. Even the most innocuous page, I’ll try it five different ways just to make sure there’s no better solution. I’ve got a fairly good sense of what will work, so I’ll normally start off fairly generic. Then I’ll start to play with it, see if I can bring up an interesting visual.
How much time do you have to do the art for each Incorporated issue?
It’s a monthly book, so about a month. Yikes!
Going off of that, specifically in Batman Incorporated #8, how did you interpret Robin’s death scene? What made you decide to do the two page spread?
When I read the script, I realized that the big death scene was happening on an odd numbered page, which means it’s going to be on the right hand side. You can spoil the surprise if you’re reading the traditional comic: If you’re trying to read the left hand page, your eyes are still going to see what’s happening on the right hand side. I didn’t want that to happen. So I turned it into a double page spread to force you to see it all. The whole scheme of the issue was the tragic inevitability of Damian’s death; hopefully from the second you see the cover, you immediately wonder, “Oh no, are they really going to…” Then you have the conversation with Dick and we’re laying it on thick that it’s not going to end well for this poor kid.
Hopefully, the way the spread ideally works, is that it forces you to see Damian being killed, but then you’re trying to read the Batman part. He’s trying to get there, but he knows he’s too late. You know he’s too late. But you’re still rooting for him to get there in time. We’ve been using that shattered glass motif from the first issue, off and on. I really had to use it to pay off the biggest moment in the series so far. Otherwise, it would have been a real missed opportunity.
There was one specific part of Damian’s fight, when Heretic seemingly breaks Damian’s back (I’m guessing he didn’t actually break Damian’s back because Damian keeps fighting)–it was very reminiscent of Knightfall–was that in the script or did you decide to put that in there?
Damian got a robotic/cyborg spine at some point in Batman and Robin. So it’s unbreakable. Including the back-breaking into the fight was my idea. I wanted to have him take the worst thing that’s ever happened to Batman and keep on kicking. On that page in particular Grant just gave a rough description of a brutal fight and the idea of making it reminiscent of Cameron Stewart’s crazy multi-panel fight scenes from Batman & Robin.
Morrison’s style was described as being “the wild, meta-fictional, and more experimental stuff, and the more mainstream superhero work” by a Goodreads member in a 2011 Interview with Morrison. Which category do you think Batman Inc falls into, if either at all?
I think for the most part, Inc. has been pretty straightforward, especially with this volume. In the first volume, with Doctor Daedalus, El Gaucho, and Batwoman—I thought that got confusing. The Leviathan Strikes issue is a perfect blend of the “straightforward” Morrison and the “trippy, drug-addled” Morrison.
Has your relationship with Morrison—the artist-writer relationship—has that been different from other writers that you’ve worked with? Is he easier to understand or more difficult to understand with regards to the script?
There’s definitely a challenge. He leaves a lot up to artistic interpretation. At first, it threw me because it wasn’t what I was expecting; I was expecting a very in-depth, detailed, “do it like this” script. There’s a lot that he leaves up to the artist’s discretion. I think that’s more fun because it keeps me engaged and gives me a lot more room with my ideas. It can almost turn into a friendly competition. He incorporates what the artist puts into the issues, so it seems like it was meant to happen like that and not something I came up with.
How did you come to work on Batman Incorporated?
It was about two and half years ago. I got an email out of the blue from Joe Casey; he’s been friends with Grant for years and showed Grant Officer Downe and I guess Grant liked it. Batman and Robin #16 was Grant’s big finale on his run. There wasn’t enough time for the artists to draw the entire issue, so they needed someone else to come in and finish, and I got an email asking if I was free to draw the finale! I drew seven pages of that Batman and Robin issue and they invited me to do a run on Batman Incorporated and after my first full issue, I signed a two-year contract with DC.
What’s the timeline like for Batman Incorporated in The New 52? Jason referred to some Inc events in Red Hood #17 so I was confused at the chronological placement of Batman Incorporated?
Well, the thing with comics is that they’re fake. I mean, that’s the thing: it’s fake, it doesn’t quite make sense. The legitimate problem is that there are eight Batman titles written by eight different guys who’re on eight different schedules. You have so many balls in the air, keeping everything perfectly in line… it’s a miracle it works as well as it does.
Do you think there is a difference between how Tomasi and Morrison portray Damian?
A little bit, but he definitely seems like the same character. It’s just that Morrison and Tomasi have different dialogue quirks, but they basically seem to be the same character to me. It just seems a lot different because they’re also drawn differently, so there are two different writing styles and two different art styles. The style of Batman and Robin is just different from the style of Batman Incorporated. No one really complains that there are eight different Batman books. They’re the same guy, but over the last 75 years, people have gotten used to there being slightly different interpretations of Batman—whatever book you pick up. But there are only really two books that Damian’s in and it sticks out a bit more.
What was your personal reaction to Damian’s death and do you think he had a “heroic” death?
I mean I’ve known this kid for almost two years. I think I drew one issue before I read the outline, so his whole arc has been a long, dramatic tragedy for me. For me, it worked on that level. I’m bummed. I liked drawing him a lot, but it doesn’t seem exploitative to me. It speaks to a certain end that he died. I think he had a heroic death: I think it’s clear from the art that he would’ve defeated Heretic if it wasn’t for those soldiers taking cheap shots at him. The other Robins couldn’t hang and this kid was able to fight off these soldiers AND Heretic. He stopped Heretic from setting off the bomb. So, yeah—he saved the world and almost beat the baddest Batman ever, so it seems pretty heroic to me.
In Batman Incorporated #1 of this run, it opens up with Bruce giving up; Morrison’s run hasn’t finished yet and I don’t know exactly what happens, but that makes me think Bruce just loses all resolve, which is contradictory to his reaction to Jason’s death—is this the right or wrong interpretation?
No hints! You have to buy the comic for that.
In The New 52, Batman’s only been active for six years or less, as according to Batman Annual #1, Bruce returned from his trip around the world six years ago. There have been some concerns about that: how Damian is ten and how Bruce has gone through all the Robins. Do you think this has impacted the story at all?
Only if you let it. I think tying long term comics down to a specific timeline is a stupid idea. I think [the editors] already regret it. I don’t know why they didn’t just say “years ago” and just leave it at that. We try our best to ignore whatever continuity screw ups happen, because it’s all fun.
Overall, how do you think your run on Batman Inc has been? What are you most proud of? Would you do anything different a second time over?
I think I’ve done a pretty good job. As far as “most proud of,” just a couple pages here and there: the panels kind of projected onto the buildings in issue #1—I think that’s pretty neat. I think Leviathan Strikes is pretty impressive; I got to take forever drawing it, so I had all sorts of time to really pack that full of weird eye candy. For the most part, I don’t have too many regrets; there’s a panel here and there that I knew wasn’t quite right at the time, but I ran out of time. There’s just a few here and there. There’s one panel in issue #4—which I think is a dynamite issue—and it’s just a nightmare. It’s right when Batman defeats El Guacho and they’re both kind of just standing there when Batman should have been looming over him with El Guacho on the ground. I feel bad every time I see it! Batman’s head is one and half times as big as it should be and… well, you get the idea.
Chris gave me insight into the comic book industry from an artist’s perspective I never thought about. I highly suggest you read the question regarding Burnham’s interpretation of Robin’s death scene very closely, as he makes a wonderful point about Damian’s death happening on an odd number page. Thinking back on it, I think that added a lot to the tension of the piece that I hadn’t considered because I was so flustered at Damian’s death: by seeing Robin die first, you–the reader–know that Robin is done; Batman knows, you know, and it serves to add dramatic tension. After rereading through Batman Incorporated #8 several times, I can see how much thought and planning Chris devoted to the issue, especially in such a time crunch–one month is a short time to illustrate a story of that complexity! So props definitely go to Chris on that, and you should all check out his work.
Thanks for reading and continue to look back here at Emertainment Monthly weekly for The New 52 Series! Please post, share, and reblog to your hearts content!