This month marks the 80th anniversary of the first Batman story ever. And thanks to only a skosh of numerical manipulation on the part of DC Comics, this week also marks the publication of the 1,000th issue of Detective Comics, the still-going series in which that 1939 story debuted. This all means that it’s a pretty good time for Polygon’s resident Batman expert, me.
I talk about Batman a lot, professionally. The character is a deeply personal subject for me, a fantastical fiction that I am unashamed to say is a fundamental pillar of who I am. For his 80th birthday, there was only one Batman creator I wanted to talk to. And that’s Devin Grayson, the only woman to have been a lead writer on a core Batman title, ever.
Picture me: a tiny nerd, in early college in the mid-aughts. I had decided to study writing in order to write superhero comics for a living, in full knowledge that finding people in academia who respected comics would probably be hard, and finding people in the comics world who respected women writers would probably be even harder.
Many women have written superhero comics — many of them decades and decades before I started reading. But holding a copy of Gotham Knights in my college freshman hands was the first time that I realized a woman had written superhero comics, ever. And she was writing my favorite character, in my favorite one of his titles.
Maybe it wasn’t a bat flying through a window just as you’re deciding whether to become a vigilante or bleed out on the floor, but it was a pretty big deal to me.
In honor of Batman’s 80th birthday, I chatted with writer Devin Grayson about how she got into writing comics, why Batman is so compelling, whether he really does appeal to women more than other superheroes, and why she left the Batman office.
Polygon: How did you get into Batman as a fan? What were your first Batman experiences?
Devin Grayson: Well, mine came late. Unlike many of my colleagues, I didn’t actually grow up writing comics or being being that enmeshed in a pop culture. I mean, Batman was unavoidable, I was certainly aware of him, but he wasn’t meaningful in my life until my 20s, when I stumbled across Batman: The Animated Series. And, as I’m sure you know, that was a really different animated show; everything from the visual design of it to the kind of stories they were covering, and it really immediately grabbed my attention.
I became kind of fascinated, really initially, with the relationship between Batman and Robin. It had never occurred to me that Batman had raised somebody. And the minute that clicked into my head, I was like, Wait, he was a father? How does that work? That was just, you know, fiction crack to me. I had to examine that and understand it and figure it out. I’ve had a long history with forming relationships with fictional characters, and that was love at first sight.
What other notable fictional characters have you formed that kind of relationship with?
Oh, before that? Sure, it was Hamlet, and Hastings in the Agatha Christie books. I always liked the sidekicks. Sarah Crewe from A Little Princess, I think was probably one of the first ones. So, yeah jumping all over the place all the time.
So you get into Batman in your 20s. How do you make the leap from there to writing Batman comics?
Basically pure naiveté. I didn’t know anything about comics or the comic industry, and if I’d known how competitive it was and what I was getting into, I might’ve done something different. But all I knew was that I needed to know about more about the characters. So I did some research and I followed them back to their point of origin, which turned out not to be the Adam West TV series — [jokingly] Who knew? — but these things called comic books. And so I started reading about comics, and I came across about [Scott] McCloud’s amazing book, Understanding Comics. This whole new world started to open up.
I had a day job; I had graduated from college and was trying to figure out what I was going to do in the world. And I just cold-called DC comics from that job. That was back when they were doing AOL chats, I remember chatting with the editors. And so I sent him some fanfiction samples, really — which, I mean, don’t do this now. I don’t know why it worked then — but just to show them that I could write. [pause] I have to slow down and tell the story correctly.
I called and I asked for the guy in charge of Batman. And back in those days, they didn’t ask who you were, they just put you through. And they put me through to Denny O’Neil, who was, indeed, the guy in charge of Batman. And so I explained who I was and that I’m a writer. I already do writing, but I don’t really know anything about comics, is that something that you could teach me?
And he was quiet for a second, and then he laughed and he said, “You know, I get 200 calls a day from people who have read every comic ever written, that they want me to teach them how to write. And I don’t know if I can do that. But if you really know how to write, then absolutely we could teach you about how this medium works.”
So I entered into a long distance mentorship with him and the editors that were working with him, Scott Peterson and Darren Vincenzo and Jordan Gorfinkel, and they all started sending me suggestions; classes to take, like McKee’s Story Structure; books to read.
And I had the local comic store — I ran in and I said, “I need everything you’ve got on Robin.”
And he said, “Which Robin?”
[And I thought] Oh, there’s still a lot to learn, I was confused, What? I actually ended up marrying that guy a few years later, but that’s a different story.
So yeah, I meant Dick Grayson, and he figured that out, and I left with a huge pile of comics and graphic novels and just became enmeshed. Although, I have to admit that even to this day I’m not really in the habit of regularly reading comics. I don’t know if you have to be indoctrinated into that at a certain point and I just missed it. I read things because they’re related to work I’m doing or because they involve friends and colleagues. But that’s not what I turn to when I’m reading, it doesn’t occur to me.
So we did that long distance mentorship, and eventually Darren Vincenzo offered me a short script, which became a story “Like Riding a Bike” in Batman Chronicles #7, I think. And then I did a Batman Plus special with Arsenal and then Denny offered me the Catwoman series and I unwisely quit my day job and moved to New York, and it all worked out.
What were your aspirations before comics?
When I was younger it was studying acting — again, still that idea of forming the relationship with a fictional character. And when I was 14 I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that really profoundly changed my relationship with my body.
I’ve always thought that acting and writing words very similar, but in acting, you’re using your body and your physical self to move those characters into this world. And in writing, of course, it’s more cerebral and you’re using your brain. And I think the diabetes, in a weird way, killed my confidence about being able to be a physical conduit, so I turned my attention to becoming a mental conduit.
And I had been writing the whole time, I was one of those kids who had 500 blank journals at all times and was constantly scribbling notes and writing bad poetry and little short stories and stuff. But I didn’t completely give up on the acting until after high school. I was in a sociology class, I think, where they asked us to do a paper about someone who had influenced our lives.
And of course I completely made the whole thing up, and it was really over the top and crazy and the guy, like, dies falling down a waterfall in Zimbabwe. It was absolutely nuts. But the teacher had me read it out loud, and I looked up because the class was genuinely affected. They were really worried about this guy, and sad for me that I’d lost this person.
And the teacher sort of had a raised eyebrow, I think he knew I had pulled that out of nowhere. But that was one of my first experiences with how powerfully fiction can connect with people, and how you can actually use it to tell truths. That there’s a difference between what’s real and what’s true, and that fiction is a very good way of getting to what’s true, for us as people, emotionally. So that was it, I was hooked from that point on. I worked with Mona Simpson at Bard College in fiction writing and I thought I was going to do the Great American Novel, but it turned out to be the Great American Graphic Novel.
Your story of getting into comics reminds me greatly of the “getting into the industry” stories from comics creators of the ’60s and ’70s, when it was still a weird job you could sometimes pick up by walking into an office with no experience. Do you think that Denny O’Neil coming up as a writer in that very era had a factor in it?
Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely. No one’s ever caught that before, but I really think he recognized immediately the same sort of attitude of, Oh yeah, you grab somebody from somewhere else and you put them in this and great things happened. That was pretty much his experience too. I think he had a much wider perspective of the kind of people that could write comics than anyone else would have, and I was very lucky to get him. He had recreated an atmosphere very much like that when he was in charge of the Bat-office and the late ’90s and early ’00s.
In what way?
I call it Camelot. It just felt so friendly and open and non-corporate and he was so respectful. As a writer himself, he really understood how the artistic process worked. He was a Zen master at helping you with story problems. You would come in and give a long, complicated problem and he would say something like, Hmm, whose story is it? And you’d be like, Oh! I got it! Suddenly it all made sense.
Later I was at DC long enough that he and the other three editors that I mentioned, everybody left. And, man, was it a huge culture change. For the first time I really saw the business for what I would say it more often is. I knew I was in a special place, but I didn’t realize how special until it was gone. And then I saw what I think we would consider a more normal comic corporate experience happening around me and it was very different. I really missed him.
Detective Comics #1000 is out this week, and this month is Batman’s 80th anniversary. There are going to be a lot of people talking about how Batman has become so long-lived and what is the kernel of him that makes him so compelling? What is the thing that makes that makes Batman so immortal?
Two things come to mind for me. The first is that he’s human and not super powered. And that, to me, makes him much more accessible than any of the other superheroes. We really all could be Batman, if we were willing to make the sacrifices he made and become experts in the things he became expert at. And that’s probably not literally true, but it’s a fictional truth that we can hold on to. That, Wow, that’s an example of a person deciding to become something more than a person. And part of what’s so extraordinary about him as a character is that what motivates his heroism is actually something very dark and tragic. And I love the idea — and I think a lot of people end up responding to it — that the worst thing that happens to you in your life can become the impetus for the best version of yourself possible. I think that’s really powerful.
The other thing is — I’ll steal a quote that I remember Denny saying. I talked to him recently and he wasn’t sure if he’d actually did or not, but said it sounded cool and it was fine to ascribe it to him [laughs].
But I remember him referring to Batman as “urbanity coopted.” Which I took to mean a personification of the city and everything that is frightening and scary and overwhelming about urban life, but also the resources and the energy and What if you could have that whole unknowable thing as a person who is on your side and watching over you?
And as somebody who grew up in cities, that just felt very meaningful to me. I understood that immediately. I was like, Yes. I always felt like he was a hero who would understand what I thought was really wrong in the world. He knew people, he knew crime, he knew that crime was sometimes random and dirty and stemmed from societal issues like poverty and social injustices. The degree to which people could be horrible was something I felt like he could understand, and that you need a hero who understands that and can protect you from that.
Anecdotally at least, I feel that Batman appeals to female readers. Would you agree with that, and if you have any theories about why?
I’d love to hear your theories. I do agree with it; I don’t know that I’ve considered it as a why question. I’m still working through my own internalized misogyny. The first thing that went through my mind I don’t like, which is the whole fixing a broken man thing. Let’s just put that aside — I’m going to call that conditioning and move on.
What is it about him? Well, partially what I was talking about before, that he feels like someone who understands the complexities of the world. Superman, to me, feels very much like a more masculine power fantasy. He’s a great character, and when you actually start delving down there’s lots and lots of layers there, but the iconography of it is bright, shiny, strong, all-powerful, completely impossible to hurt on any level. And, at least as a kid growing up in the Bay Area, and Oakland, I couldn’t relate to that. It didn’t speak to me.
But somebody who moves around at night, deliberately masking themselves, who’s completely human but has sacrificed things to become more than human — and, in some ways, in a theme that ran through my work — less than human. I don’t know that just felt so approachable and compelling, in a way. Maybe there was a paternal energy that we could attach to? I’m not doing a good job, I don’t know, what do you think? [laughs]
[laughs] Well, for me, and I think this is reflected in a lot of your work and particularly in Gotham Knights, he’s got this cast of characters you can attach yourself to. And, partially in thanks to Batman: The Animated Series, the women in that cast of characters were very much pushed to the forefront in recent decades. If you know who Batman is, you also probably know who Catwoman is, who Batgirl is, who Poison Ivy is. You probably understand that there is a place for women in Gotham City.
Lois Lane is indelibly connected to Superman, too. And I don’t feel like he has the same pull. It could be totally personal, but yeah.
And I think you can’t discount, like, having a crush on Nightwing.
I mean, yeah, let’s be real, that’s a huge part of it.
But actually, yeah, you bring up a good point, that he’s surrounded by people that are even easier than him to relate to. And so the comics are designed in some ways to make us put ourselves in their shoes and be there with him; we have this amazing way to access him. And I guess, you know, Jimmy Olsen was probably supposed to be that for Superman. But I don’t relate to Jimmy Olsen. I totally related to Dick Grayson or to Barbara Gordon. It was much easier to imagine being those people trying to relate to this difficult but amazing figure.
The knot that I kept pulling at in my early work was the tension between Dick and Bruce, particularly, and what it meant to want to be loyal and devoted to somebody who kind of didn’t want you there. I mean — absolutely needed you and depended on you and cared about you, but was also really a loner. And not someone who was ever going to be effusive about your presence in their life.
How did Gotham Knights, your Batman title, come to be?
That was Denny, over lunch, saying, “If you had a Batman title, what would you do with it?” And I said, “Oh, it would totally be about the family and trying to make sense out of that glorious contradiction we set up, that he’s a loner and yet we have marketing, so we’ve had to create all these other characters around him, we have to make that make sense fictionally. I would really be interested in looking at those relationships.” And he said, “Yeah, that sounds great, do it.” [laughs] It used to be so easy!
And you did that so well.
He’s got so many great characters around him and they just sort of got better and better and richer and richer and the relationships got more and more complicated. It was glorious there was so much to play with.
Especially in that specific era: the twilight of the Post-Crisis Universe, where there was over a decade of history.
That’s a really good point. I think people later found that messy and they wanted to clean it up; but that’s what life is, it’s all that great messiness. And that’s the really fun part of working for characters that have been around that long, is to take everything that’s happened and try to make sense out of it. That’s the game, that’s what’s fun. So if these people really did this and this and this and this, and it’s really related to this and this and this person, and this is the way they shared these experiences, what does that mean? Who are they, then, when they stand in a room together? I love that stuff.
And I don’t know if this was you or the office at the time, but the stories were always small. I don’t mean that in a slight way, but they were very ...
Yes. The stakes were not high on a citywide scale, but very high for the characters.
Right. It was a little bit of both. Denny really was invested in keeping Batman street level and an urban legend, those two things were important to him. So that this necessitated a slightly smaller scale. And then for me, because I was always looking at the relationships, it wasn’t just What is this bad guy doing?, it’s What can we make this bad guy reveal about these characters?
Is there a thread or theme you feel like you are still pulling on, since the beginning of your work?
Thematically I’m interested a lot in made families, the families we create for ourselves as opposed to our biological families.
That’s a huge Batman theme.
Exactly! I think I recognized that that was what attracted me to the whole mythos, I saw that in there.
My other big theme is identity, which, again, is a Batman theme; the ability to create yourself and decide what you’re going to stand for and how you present yourself, and what that means for your internal experience and the perception people have of you externally. I think those are my two big themes.
I would have said before that, you know, I don’t really love scifi or magic, but I recently wrote a Doctor Strange novel, and I freaking loved working with magic; the allegorical possibilities are endless. I really enjoyed that. I still surprise myself, I find things that I didn’t know I was interested in.But for me it’s always about connecting with a character and wanting to tell a story about them and say something about the world that they’re in and the kind of people they’ve surrounded themselves with and what that means.
And then the other journey that I have mentioned, it’s probably boring for anyone else could hear, but I am amazed that as somebody who grew up in Berkeley and Oakland and with my parents being who they were that I was so not woke, for so long. I’m really working on some personal stuff about internalized misogyny and coming into a broader understanding of your [own] position in the social world.
The era when you wrote Batman comics has passed, and I wonder if you could talk about the decisions that sort of have dovetailed you away from the Batman offices.
I had this all worked out at one point. I can’t remember that, but maybe that’s good. Maybe I’ll tell a different version of the story. I came into [comics during] a really extraordinary time in the Bat-office, and was there as that time fell apart and was replaced by something else.
And it’s not at all unusual for new editors or people even higher than that to come in and clean house and bring their people in. And I actually was feeling pretty good, because I’d survived two or three rounds of that. But the experience, as a writer, was going from a place where you knew everyone personally; felt like they really understood what you were good at and what your strengths were; and were very invested in helping you tell the best stories you could tell by pretty much winding you up and leaving you to do your thing.
I would turn in a 12-month outline, I would get a couple of notes, I would make those changes, and really that was it. Nothing else was ever edited unless I made a mistake — I mean it was all edited, but no changes were requested. It went from that, to the guy at the very top line-editing every single script.
There was a value placed, early on, a diversity of voices, but I don’t mean that in the, you know, 2019 way of women and people of color and stuff. That was important, and I think they were looking to that. But I mean diversity in terms of, We have six different Batman books, let’s make sure they’re all really different, and that the people writing them are telling different kinds of stories and they’ll all appeal to different kinds of readers.
And we did do the huge events that you talk about where everybody jumped into the same pool and we all work together to tell a huge singular narrative and that was really fun. But then we all went back to our separate corners and were allowed to tell our own stories again. And there was really an emphasis put on, Well, what are those people good at doing? And let them tell those kinds of stories.
That philosophy of how to tell a story completely evaporated and was replaced by I’m the guy, I have the vision, maybe I’ll find this one lieutenant or something and he’s going to help, but we’re all going to get in line. We’re all going to tell the same stories. The character is always going to sound the same. I suppose you could couch it and the desire to tighten continuity, but it felt like more than that, it felt like a homogenization, a vision, really.
And it amazes me that that’s been allowed to continue as long as it has. I think, How is nobody making the connection between what, to me, is a very obvious — there’s an obvious couple of people that I feel like if you want it not to be like this, they can’t be there anymore. But in addition to not being as open to the idea of individual creators telling different kinds of stories, they were not as invested, as far as I could tell, in female writers. It turned back into the old boys club that I suspect it had been before I got there, but I hadn’t experienced. It was very shocking to me to have that unfold.
And when I first got into comics, again, my naïveté, because I didn’t know anything about the industry, I thought we were surrounded by women. I kept hearing about Julie Schwartz and Kelly Jones and I was just assuming — like, Where are these people? There were a fair amount of women in the editorial offices, but of course, you know, Julius Schwartz and Kelly Jones are both men. And it did slowly start to dawn on me that I was somewhat isolated, but I was never meant to feel isolated, and I wanted to be one of the guys at that point. And they were so willing to let that happen, and it still felt really good.
And after they left the ability to do that disappeared in a weird way. I’m saying they were less invested in having diverse writers, but at the same time they were more interested in doubling down on the image of that diversity. So suddenly I wasn’t, you know, “Devin who writes X, Y, Z” — I was “Devin the female writer.”
And at that time I really chafed against that. I’ve come full circle and sort of learned to embrace it, but at the time I’d gone out of my way to not be writing a lot of female characters and to stick with the big guys. So my experience was actually quite painful. I went from being on two books I absolutely loved doing ...
Also in that culture, I had assignments sent to me, I don’t remember ever really pitching for anything unless I was asked to, but like never just sort of off the top of my head, You guys, let me write X, Y, Z, it was always, Hey, how’d you like to pitch for this? And so that went away, and I wasn’t good at finding my footing about being pushier about, Let me do this or that. But then I said as much, and I was offered a couple of things and they said no to every single pitch I came up with.
And then I had that horrible experience with Batwoman where I was halfway through my third issue, with a six-month approved outline, and read in the New York Times that DC had no intention of publishing a Batwoman monthly. I called my editor, Aren’t we already working on this? And he didn’t have any more information, and the whole thing just disappeared. And then a couple of months later it came out with a new writer.
So, that was sort of the end for me. And I waited for somebody to call and explain what had happened and nobody ever did. And then I looked up and it had been 10 years and I was like, all right, this is over.
The Women in Comics discussion is now said with capital letters. And I think that there can be a perception every time a discussion about capital-D Diversity comes up that it’s the first time we’ve ever had this discussion. But then you talk to someone older, and hear stories and realize there’s a whole iceberg of history underneath. Was there an equivalent to the Women in Comics discussion while you were in the industry?
So, it’s interesting because we’re talking about the difference between that period and this period. And there wasn’t a conversation about women in comics. There were conversations between women in comics. We talked to each other about what was going on; who you needed to avoid in the office, who was safe; the #MeToo conversations. But it wasn’t something that was being discussed on an editorial level at all.
And I find that really interesting because that was the environment that actually produced, me. And looking back at the history of Batman, there was Ruth Lyons Kaufman, have you heard of her? She was from the Golden Age, she wrote Batman stories, so there have been women, always, in periods when people weren’t talking about there needing to be women — although not enough women.
And so certainly there are more now and good changes have been happening. My experience was that it was a complete nonissue, until I got into some kind of press interview. And then immediately the first question was always, “What’s it like to be a female working in a male-dominated industry?” And my first thought to that was, “Well, compared to what? Like, what industry isn’t male-dominated?” But in the first 10 years of my career, when the industry was probably seeped in unexamined misogyny, I was really dealing with internalized misogyny and not happy with being a representative of female-kind, and very uncomfortable with that, and very vocal about being uncomfortable with that. I became more woke and into it as I matured.
But I was very aware of the discrepancy between what it felt like to be working for an editor who never treated me any differently than anyone else. And then doing the publicity where it was always not only an issue, but the only issue. No one ever talked to me about my work or my stories, it was just female, female, female. And I couldn’t quite figure out what they were trying to get at at the time. So I don’t know that I was as good an ally as I could have been. I’m just kind of babbling now ...
The other thing that I did notice looking back is that although I did work on Batman and Ghost Rider and stuff, I did always start at the big companies with a female character. My first series was Catwoman, and before I wrote Ghost Rider, I wrote Black Widow. And so there was a desire to put a female artistic team on a female character. And we were talking some about the characters and how they were represented, that conversation had started. But when I told them I wasn’t sure I was the right person to be doing that, they believed me and they would let me move on to the males. I don’t think that would happen today. Those don’t get offered anymore.
That’s why I was inspired to talk to you for Detective Comics #1000. Women have written Batgirl and Batwoman, and you wrote Nightwing, but you are the only woman to have been the lead writer on one of Batman’s core titles. I find that so frustrating, and it gets more frustrating for me every time a year goes by and I go, Well, now it’s been 16 years, and now it’s been 17 years.
And now we have an even broader talent pool; off the top of our heads either of us could name 10 women who could totally do it. But it’s not going to happen until there’s upper management changes. Trickle-down economics is BS, but trickle-down corporate culture is a very real thing. And if what’s happening at the top is not open to that kind of stuff, it is not going to reach the bottom.
I could name names — “until X leaves, it’s not going happen.” But I need to still be careful [laughs]. But I don’t think it’s a mystery, if you look.
This interview has been edited for clarity and flow.